August 29, 2008

Immigrant Farmworkers Get Legislative Support

Pro-union California farmworkers received a boost from the California State Senate this week. By a 23-15 vote, lawmakers approved a measure August 18 that will allow workers to opt for union representation via an automatic check-off system refereed by a neutral mediator agreed to by labor and employers. Sponsored by California Assemblyman Fabian Nunez (D-Los Angeles), the bill, AB 2386, also permits workers to participate in traditional state-run ballot booth elections if they so desire.

The California Democrat argued that a stronger representation system was needed in spite of union and health and safety provisions already on the books.

“AB 2386 offers a fair, secret ballot mechanism that helps farmworkers protect their rights under law,” Nunez said.

Nunez’s bill was backed by the United Farmworkers of America (UFW), which staged a pray-in attended by hundreds of farmworkers at California Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger’s Sacramento office the same day as the State Senate vote.

According to UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, only 7 percent of California’s 500,000 farm hands are unionized. Rodriguez and other farm labor advocates have long contended that California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board favors employers and drags-out union elections to the disadvantage of organizing campaigns.

Several highly-publicized deaths of farmworkers from heat stroke contracted in the fields helped galvanize support for Nunez’s bill, with farmworker advocates arguing that the best way to protect worker rights and safety was for laborers to have a strong union.

Since 2004, 15 farmworkers have reportedly succumbed in the Golden State to heat stroke. The two most recent deaths reported were those of Jorge Herrera, who died on July 31 while harvesting grapes, and 63-year-old Maria de Jesus Alvarez, who perished on August 2.

Most farmworkers in California are immigrants from Mexico and other Latin American countries, and many complain of bad working conditions.

“The hardest thing is to work in the sun,” said Elias Perez, an immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico, who participated in the Sacramento protest. “Sometimes I feel half dizzy, especially when the temperature reaches 98 degrees.”

Assemblyman Nunez, who toured the state’s fields for three days this summer as part of a video documentary production, said he encountered workers earning less than the minimum wage and working 14 hours per day in the hot sun.

“This is not possible,” Nunez added, “when we have approved laws here in (Sacramento) guaranteeing dogs and cats the right to be fed.”

Endorsing the current system of ballot booth elections, some employer groups oppose the Nunez bill. “This bill is an affront to the origins of democracy and to the privacy of the workers,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League.

After the State Senate vote early this week, Nunez’s legislation was scheduled to return to the California State Assembly for a concurrence vote and then to Gov. Schwarzenegger, who can either veto the measure or sign it into law.

Reprinted from Frontera NorteSur (FNS): on-line, U.S.-Mexico border news Center for Latin American and Border Studies New Mexico State University Las Cruces, New Mexico.

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