August 16 2002

UFW retraces Cesar Chavez’s first march in support of farm labor bill

Under a blazing sun, a 150-mile, 10-day march got underway from Merced to the state Capitol, Thursday morning, with the expressed intent of dissuading Gov. Gray Davis from vetoing the labor bill.

The march is expected to draw thousands of workers and some political and celebrity supporters as it winds north through hot, dusty agricultural towns along Highway 99 before ending in Sacramento.

The route traces a stretch of the late Cesar Chavez’s first march for California farm workers 38 years ago. This is the first multi-city march since a 1994 march to mark the first anniversary of Chavez’s death, said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.

The decision to march, announced Tuesday, marks a shift in strategy for the bill’s supporters and underscores their concern that Davis may veto the measure that lawmakers approved last week. The bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, D-San Francisco, will hold the bill back from Davis’ desk to ensure it stays alive while the march proceeds.

Although the UFW has had a handful of activists camped out at the Capitol for days, organizers say a march that draws in thousands of chanting supporters will send a stronger signal.

“I’m hoping the governor realizes the significance of this to farm workers and the Latino community,” said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who will lead the march, joined by Chavez’s son, Paul.

“Farm workers are still the lowest paid, the most exploited workforce, and yet they do a job that’s so critical to us,” Rodriguez said. “For them not to have the rights of other workers in California is a disgrace.”

The measure would allow labor contracts to be imposed by third-party arbitration when talks deadlock between growers and farm workers.

The measure, SB 1736, is politically complex for Davis, who has courted support from both growers and farm workers. His Republican opponent in the Nov. 5 governor’s race, Bill Simon, opposes the bill.

Rodriguez said he had hoped the bill could go to Davis’ desk immediately after its final approval by the Legislature last week.

But when the UFW failed to get a commitment from Davis to sign the measure, Burton decided to hold it in the Senate, hoping the march would prod Davis to sign it, UFW leaders said.

Davis press secretary Steve Maviglio said the governor has not made a decision about the measure but is concerned about its impact on California’s economy.

California’s landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, passed in 1975, made the state the first to give workers the right to unionize. Davis was chief of staff to then-Gov. Jerry Brown.

Farm workers have since cast votes to unionize 428 times, but growers have signed contracts in only 185 cases. Grossman said 27,000 agricultural laborers are working under UFW contracts, a fraction of the state’s estimated 700,000 farm workers. Three-fourths earn less than $10,000 per year and most have no health insurance, he said.

Excerpts were taken from a Sacramento Bee article by Margaret Talev, published August 14, 2002.

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