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Farm worker pact stirs Calif. conflict

(Wednesday, Sept. 25, 2002 -- CropChoice news) --

Rene Sanchez, The Washington Post, 09/23/2002: For nearly 15 years, the field workers who pick mushrooms all day long in [the Oxnard, California] coastal farming region have pleaded with growers to increase wages and benefits in ways that help improve their humble lives.

Even amid threats of strike and boycotts, every bargaining session has ended in frustration, with no deal. "We have practically begged them to reach agreements with us," said Jesus Torres, who has worked in the fields for 25 years. "But they always refuse."

The problem is old and pervasive in California's vast farming valleys. But the state may soon take a momentous step to solve it.

Over the adamant objections of thousands of growers, California lawmakers recently approved a collection of bills that could give the roughly half-million field workers in the state much more bargaining power than they have ever had --- by allowing impartial third parties to take over stalled contract talks and possibly force farmers to accept labor contracts they oppose.

The proposals could bring profound change to California's $27 billion agricultural industry, which is among the largest in the world.

The legislature's decision follows a summer of unrest in California's farming fields. Invoking the legacy of their late, legendary leader Cesar Chavez, thousands of field workers last month staged a 10-day, 150-mile protest march to the capitol in Sacramento through the dusty rural roads of the state's Central Valley to demand more respect from growers. Hundreds more have held vigils at the capitol to pressure state leaders to embrace their cause.

The campaign has worked --- almost. Now, field workers are struggling with their most difficult challenge: persuading Gov. Gray Davis (D), who is up for reelection this fall, to sign the landmark legislation. He has until the end of the month to decide its fate. And it has him trapped in a serious political predicament.

If Davis supports the farm workers, he will outrage one of the most powerful industries in the state, and one that has been writing him stacks of campaign checks. Agricultural interests have contributed about $1.5 million to his reelection fund --- and more than $100,000 in just the past few weeks. But if Davis vetoes the measures, he risks alienating a growing and ever more influential part of the California electorate: Latino voters, many of whom have family roots in the fields.

The fight over the legislation just sent to Davis has been brewing for more than two decades, ever since, at Chavez's urging, California became the first state in the country to allow field workers to organize and seek labor contracts with growers. Since then, according to the United Farm Workers, more than 400 groups of field workers around the state have voted to unionize, but only 185 of them have won contracts.

The union charges that many growers often show no real interest in negotiations. And the law has not required them to come to terms. Now, lawmakers want to close that loophole.

California's farming fields are filled with laborers who live in deep poverty. Many make about $10,000 a year and receive no medical benefits. Some work seasonally, some year-round. The UFW and its allies say that giving field workers more bargaining power will bring dignity to a workforce that has long been a backbone of California's economy.

"This will put more pressure on the growers to pay more attention to the simple needs of the workers," said Reynaldo Arevalo, who has picked in fields here for 11 years. "Now, many growers just drag negotiations on and on and try to give workers hope for tomorrow, but it never comes."

Legislators who want the labor law strengthened to help farm workers say the move could raise the cost of produce in the state, but consider that a small and necessary price to pay.

"The average person understands that if they pay more for fruits and vegetables, they are improving the lives of the people who get the fruits and vegetables to their table," said state Sen. Deborah Ortiz (D). "I think the average Californian would say this is a good investment."

But agricultural leaders say the impact on farms, field workers and the state economy would be far more devastating than paying a few pennies more for a head of lettuce. Forcing growers into binding labor contracts they can't afford, at a time when they are facing new global competition, will drive some out of business and eliminate many field worker jobs, they say.

The industry also contends state regulators already have tools to penalize growers who are not negotiating in good faith. And some growers are denouncing the package of bills the legislature just approved as nothing more than a ploy to boost membership in the United Farm Workers, which reached 100,000 when Chavez was in his political prime but has since dwindled to about 27,000.

"This is unfair and unjust," said Bob Krauter, a spokesman for the California Farm Bureau, which represents more than 50,000 growers in the state. "It's an extreme way to address a complicated issue, and there's no question that it's going to make many farms much harder to operate." The California Chamber of Commerce opposes the legislation, and the Western Growers Association is calling the potential new labor rules "an all-out legislative assault on California's farm families."

But farm workers also have an influential chorus on their side. Several dozen of Hollywood's biggest stars --- Jack Nicholson, Barbra Streisand, Martin Sheen --- are all urging Davis to agree to the UFW's bargaining demands.

Davis has been a friend to the union in the past; he has even made Chavez's birthday a state holiday. But as the political feud between growers and farm workers has raged in recent months, he has watched in silence. Aides to the governor have hinted that he is reluctant to sign the legislation, however, so its backers have hastily passed two milder versions of it.

Each of the bills sent to Davis would give growers and farm workers only a few months to reach agreement on a contract. If they don't, one proposal would require an arbitrator to step in, assess each side's offer, then resolve the impasse by setting broad, binding terms that could take effect in weeks.

Another proposal relies on mediators to settle contract disputes, then refer difficult cases to a state board that oversees the agriculture industry. The board would make contract recommendations that each side could appeal to the California Supreme Court. But that measure has two strict limits: Only 75 cases could come before the board. And the new bargaining rules would be phased out after five years. It also exempts farms with less than 25 employees from the process.

The UFW, fearing a Davis veto, helped craft the compromise, reluctantly. "We hate it," said Marc Grossman, the union's chief spokesman. "But it's better than the status quo, and it will show the growers that the sky isn't going to fall."

Some farm workers say they will take anything they can get. In the fields here, mushroom pickers who often work six days a week contend their wages have hardly budged over the last decade. In January, hundreds who work at one local farm received a slight raise. Now, they make 48 cents for every basket they fill instead of 46 cents.

Growers predict that if Davis signs any of the bills, the union will begin making outrageous contract demands. Workers deny that charge. "We want the farms to prosper," said Jose Garcia, who has worked in the field for 30 years. "We know our lives will only get worse if they don't."

Union activists have begun shadowing Davis at public events and have held sit-ins at some of his offices. "The Latino community will not forget if he vetoes this," Jesus Torres said. "And we are going to keep pushing until we get justice."