LOS ANGELES – The United Farm Workers (UFW) are marching in a 150-mile, 10-day trek from the San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento, in order to pressure Governor Gray Davis to approve a history-making bill, which could force growers to sign labor contracts.

“Justice delayed is justice denied,” is the message sent by Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president, and Dolores Huerta, union co-founder, who are leading the “March for the Governor’s Signature.” The march was kicked off on Aug. 16 and will end on Aug. 25 with a massive rally at the capitol.

Senate Bill 1736 passed both California’s Senate and Assembly with mostly Democrats voting for and Republicans voting against. The Governor has not stated his position on the legislation, which should be on his desk right before the Sacramento rally.

If signed, the bill would be the most important piece of legislation established for farm workers since the landmark California 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was the first law in the nation to give them the right to organize and bargain collectively. The bill would grant farm workers mediation and arbitration to win union contracts with growers who refuse to bargain in good faith.

Introduced by State Senator John Burton (D-San Francisco), the monumental bill would ensure that farm workers get the benefits and union rights that they voted for in state-supervised secret ballot elections. That same right was provided to backstretch workers at racetracks last year.

Currrent laws do not put enough pressure on growers to bargain in good faith, resulting in years passing with costly litigation before farm workers can get relief.

Of the 428 companies where farm workers voted for the UFW since 1975, only 185 have signed contracts with the union. Many growers retaliated against workers and hired union-busting attorneys to delay the process. Binding arbitration would do away with this and ensure a contract.

In Salinas, at the D’Arrigo Brothers vegetable growers, workers voted to unionize in 1975, and, despite decades of negotiations, the 1,400 workers still have no contract.

California’s $27 billion agricultural industry opposes the Burton bill. Even so, the union remains staunch in its effort to pass a bill that would be far reaching in an industry where 75 percent of the workforce earns less than $10,000 a year and 90 percent have no health coverage.

“They’re the most exploited workers that exist in California,’’ Rodriguez told the media. “It doesn’t take a genius to see who needs to be treated fairly.’’

“The right to organize is not supposed to be just an academic exercise. What good is the right to organize if farm workers never get a contract?” said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.

Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante is supporting the bill and joined the UFW at the march last Sunday when a busload of Salinas Valley farm workers arrived. Many of those workers were from D’Arrigo Brothers.

Twenty nine legislators – led by state Senator Martha Escutia (D-Norwalk) – joined farm workers fasting last Monday at a vigil on the state Capitol’s north steps. The vigil has been running 24 hours a day since Monday.

As we went to press, 40 prominent entertainment figures, including many of the biggest names in Hollywood, have signed full-page ads in the August 22 editions of Daily Variety and The Hollywood Reporter, urging Gov. Gray Davis to sign SB-1736.

Among the signers are Warren Beatty, Robert Redford, Barbra Streisand, Jack Nicholson, Annette Bening, Martin Sheen, Danny Glover, Sean Penn, Valerie Harper, James Caan, Hector Elizondo, Edward James Olmos, Robert Altman and Jason Alexander.

The signers also include leaders of the Screen Actors Guild and Directors Guild of America such as SAG President Melissa Gilbert and Directors Guild Vice Presidents Stephen Soderbergh and Paris Barclay.

The author can be reached at evnalarcon@aol.com>