March 29, 2002

U.S. high court annuls labor laws, creates ‘permanent underclass of semi-slave laborers,’ sparks anti-GOP anger by Latinos

By eliminating back pay as a remedy when undocumented workers become victims of labor law violations by employers, the United States Supreme Court has effectively nullified California’s landmark farm labor law and created “a permanent underclass of easy-to-exploit semi-slave laborers,” declares United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez.

The high court ruling will also boost illegal immigration “by encouraging employers to only hire undocumented workers, knowing that if management violates their rights there will be no meaningful remedy.” The closely split 5-4 decision, with the court’s most conservative Republican members in the majority, will produce “devastation” that affords “Latinos across America the clearest understanding yet of how the Republican Party really feels about them and undocumented workers.”

Rodriguez, Cesar Chavez’s successor as UFW president, issued the following statement from the union’s Keene, Calif. headquarters in Kern County:

Coming just four days before Cesar Chavez’s birthday, this U.S. Supreme Court ruling is a devastating attack on undocumented workers in America and all Latinos across the nation. The Republican majority on the Supreme Court has effectively nullified California’s pioneering 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act as well as the only effective remedy in national labor law.

The court has emasculated the “make whole remedy” in California’s farm labor law, which requires growers to make farm workers “whole” for their economic losses—such as lost wages and benefits—when employers fire them for union activities or refuse to bargain in good faith for a union contract.

Under the Hoffman decision, an employer can be convicted of blatantly firing a worker for supporting the union but avoid reimbursing the worker for lost pay if he or she is undocumented. As Justice Breyer correctly noted in his dissent, the direct impact of this judgment will be to increase illegal immigration by encouraging employers to only hire undocumented workers, knowing that if management violates their rights there will be no meaningful remedy.

As the states of California and New York noted in their friend-of-the-court briefs, this ruling has other far-reaching affects, denying undocumented workers protections under a host of state and federal laws—from minimum wage and hour protections and overtime pay to workers’ compensation coverage. For example, it could be futile for undocumented workers who are cheated out of their wages by unscrupulous employers to file wage claims with the state Labor Commissioner.

In short, the Supreme Court majority is creating a permanent underclass of easy-to-exploit semi-slave laborers.

Latinos throughout America will soon come to compare today’s ruling with California’s infamous Proposition 187, the 1996 voter-passed anti-immigrant initiative strongly backed by former Gov. Pete Wilson and the Republican Party. The devastation it brings will give Latinos across America the clearest understanding yet of how the Republican Party really feels about them and undocumented workers. Like Proposition 187, it could well become a rallying cry among Latinos that haunts the Republican Party for generations to come.

This decision makes it all the more important to quickly pass UFW-sponsored legislation in the U.S. House and Senate allowing undocumented farm workers and their family members in this country to

earn legalization by working in agriculture as well as legalization for other undocumented workers. The UFW bills are authored by Sen. Edward M. Kennedy (D-Mass.) and Rep. Howard Berman (D-Calif.).

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