Farmworkers march for historic bill

SACRAMENTO – Thousands of marchers besieged the state capitol on Aug. 25, demanding Governor Gray Davis (D) sign a bill that would make history for those who toil in the fields of this state.

“Sign Senate Bill 1736! ¡Si se puede!” was the demand of farmworkers, prominent leaders and United Farm Worker (UFW) supporters who were carrying a sea of red flags with the UFW Aztec black eagle symbol on them.

The rally concluded an 11-day, 165-mile march from Merced, led by Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, and a remarkable Dolores Huerta, UFW co-founder, who marched the entire trek in spite of nearly dying last year.

“It is a disgrace that the richest state, in the richest nation in the world cannot be responsible to farm workers and to their children,” said Huerta, introduced to the rally as a worldwide symbol for civil rights.

“The only farm workers who have decent wages, benefits and pensions are union farm workers!” she shouted. “Don’t do the wrong thing, Governor Davis, because we will never forget it!”

SB-1736, which would profoundly change the relationship between growers and farm workers, already passed both houses of the legislature. If signed by the Governor, the bill would impose binding arbitration on growers when they stall in establishing a union contract.

“The purpose of this march and SB-1736 is to fulfill the dream of the original 1975 farm labor law – to make the right to organize a reality and not an empty promise,” Rodriguez told the rally as he pointed out that growers who earn $27 billion annually learned how to drag out negotiations for years, sometimes for decades.

“The great majority of farm workers still endure the grinding poverty that has been their lot for generations in this rich and bountiful land,” continued Rodriguez. “Should farm workers in California be prevented from ever enjoying the reality of their own union?” Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante, Linda Chavez-Thompson, vice president of the national AFL-CIO, Herb Wesson, speaker of the State Assembly, State Treasurer Phil Angelides, Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation, religious leaders, and many elected officials who addressed the rally, all agreed they should not.

State Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco), author of the arbitration bill, minced no words when he said, “The Governor has said we owe a great debt to farmworkers in this state. Well Governor Davis, this is how we repay them for what they do!” Huerta and Rodriguez accompanied Burton when he took the bill to the Governor for his signature.

“No one in this country could eat or do anything without you,” shouted AFL-CIO leader Linda Chavez-Thompson to farmworkers. “Workers in agriculture earn the least, have the least rights, are most abused, and it is wrong to be denied those rights! This bill could double (UFW union) membership if passed.”

Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson received loud cheers as he brought out on stage close to 20 legislators who voted for the bill. “Your fight for justice is our fight for justice,” Wesson said. “If Dr. Martin Luther King were here today, he would be proud of you! If César Chávez were here, he would be proud of you.”

Bustamante said that failure to sign the bill “dishonors what César Chávez gave his life for. Farmworkers have a right to vote [for a union] but those rights are denied if those votes don’t count!”

In 1975, César Chávez and the UFW convinced then Governor Jerry Brown (D) to push the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the only law in the nation granting farm workers the right to organize and bargain for union contracts through the state legislature. California is the only state where farm workers have a state law guaranteeing agricultural workers the right to organize.

The plight of farmworkers at Pictsweet Mushroom Farms in Ventura County clearly exposes the role of growers in preventing contracts and why SB-1736 is needed. Workers there voted for the UFW soon after the 1975 law was established. “When it comes to negotiating the core things like wages, pensions and medical benefits, the negotiations just stop,” said Manuel Salomon, who has worked in dangerous cave-like conditions at the Ventura farm for 22 years. To this day, the workers have nothing to show for their efforts because the contract has been stalled.

The UFW has made this bill a priority and has maintained a vigil outside the Capitol since the bill was passed and will continue mass actions and lobbying efforts.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com