THE FARMWORKERS' BEST CHANCE
By Dick Meister
Important moves finally are under way to enable California's wretchedly
treated farmworkers to exercise the essential union rights promised them by
the 1975 law that resulted from a decade of nationally supported strikes and
On its passage, there were high hopes that the Agricultural Labor
Relations Act (ALRA) would lead to widespread farm unionization in
California and to similar laws in other states -- or even to a federal law
covering agriculture nationwide. But woefully lax enforcement has denied
farmworkers the rights they have so long needed above all else.
The ALRA says simply that if a majority of a grower's employees vote for
union representation, he must negotiate a contract with their union.
That's generally what happened during the first half-dozen years after
the law went into effect. But since then, growers whose workers have voted
for representation by the United Farm Workers union (UFW) have been able to
stall or delay contract negotiations for months, years -- even decades -- in
violation of the ALRA requirement that they "bargain in good faith."
Meanwhile, they have continued to impose the marginal conditions that led
the workers to vote for unionization.
The worst offenders include three of the state's largest vegetable
growers. One has been stalling for 27 years, another for 15 years. The
other grower, the state's principal lettuce producer, delayed 16 years
before signing a contract last year.
The chance to finally block growers from using the delaying tactics
that have been their main weapon against unionization has come with
legislation recently introduced by the State Senate's president pro tem,
former Democratic Congressman John Burton of San Francisco. The bill would
mandate that stalemated contract negotiations be turned over to arbitrators
who would hear the arguments of both parties and dictate a contract
Union charges that growers have fired or threatened to fire or
otherwise discipline union supporters -- another illegal though common
tactic -- also would go to arbitration. So would charges of union
discrimination against non-members.
Like other employers facing the prospect of arbitrated settlements,
growers undoubtedly would opt for trying to bargain for the best they could
get on their own. And they surely would at least ease their anti-unionism
to avoid fines that arbitrators might very well levy against them for
violating workers' rights to unionization.
As a result of the state's failure to adequately enforce the ALRA,
contracts have been signed by growers on only 185 of the 428 farms where
workers have voted for unionization since the ALRA's passage.
Less than 50 of the contracts are still in effect. Thus the vast
majority of farmworkers remain mired in poverty, with pay averaging less
than $10,000 a year and with none of the fringe benefits provided other
workers. They have no guarantees, few rights, and little protection from
the arbitrary acts of employers.
Although theirs is one of the country's most dangerous occupations,
they are even denied full coverage of the job safety laws, and often lack
such on-the-job necessities as fresh drinking water and field toilets.
The relatively very few who have managed to negotiate contracts have
gained the decent conditions all workers need and deserve. A recent UFW
agreement with a major strawberry grower, for example, calls for pay of $12
an hour, six paid holidays per year, paid vacations, health and life
insurance and other benefits that also cover the workers' dependents, plus a
formal grievance procedure and seniority system. Pretty routine stuff for
most industrial workers, but unheard of in agriculture.
As you might expect, grower lobbyists are not pleased with the proposed
legislation. Some sound downright hysterical over the prospect of having to
treat farmworkers decently. Roy Gabriel of the California Farm Bureau
Federation actually claimed that nothing less than "the economic survival of
California agriculture is at stake here."
But whine though growers will, Sen. Burton's bill is almost certain to
pass the Legislature, given its strong support by organized labor plus
Burton's clout and that of his party, which controls both houses.
Just last year, Democratic Gov. Gray Davis signed a UFW-sponsored bill,
also carried by Burton, that greatly increased the fines levied on the many
farm employers who regularly cheat farmworkers out of pay owed them. But
this year, Davis is running for re-election and may be reluctant to risk
angering agribusiness again by signing Burton's latest measure. But sign it
he must. It is the best chance yet for bringing badly needed economic
justice to those who grow and harvest the food that sustains us all.
Copyright c 2002, Dick Meister, a freelance columnist based in San Francisco
who's co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The Struggle to Unionize America's
Farm Workers" (Macmillan).