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PUBLIC APATHY, FAMILY FARM INDIFFERENCE,
AFBF POLITICAL MUSCLE ALL CONTRIBUTE
TO U.S. AGRICULURE'S MOST ENDURING SCANDAL
For 65 years U.S. agriculture has ignored a scandal of monumental proportions, denying to literally millions of men, women, and children the basic right that most American workers have come to take for granted --- the right to organize and bargain collectively with their employers.
Since 1937 when the National Labor Relations Act was enacted and specifically excluded agriculture and farm labor from its provisions the combination of indifference by the farm community and the militancy of the American Farm Bureau Federation (AFBF), in seeking to legislatively deny farm workers both on the national and state level, has been one of the most shameful chapters in the history of American agriculture.
Make no mistake about it there have been repeated efforts in the Congress and at the state level to extend colllective bargaining rights to farm workers, but public apathy, farmer indifference and the AFBF's political muscle have consistently thwarted such efforts. At the same time corporate agribusiness's merchants of greed have managed to capitalize on such exploitation.
Ever mindful of their institutional stockholder's best interests and the fact that consistently in the past they have returned double-digit figures when it comes to return on investment these merchants of greed have sought to find alternative ways to maintain their high profitability figures, consequently they have reasoned the best way to do such is by both cutting their labor and their raw materials costs.
Traditionally they have sought to cut labor costs by subjecting the unprotected men, women and children who work in the fields, orchards and processing plants of the nation to below poverty wages and inhuman working conditions.
What compounds this scandal, however, is the inability of the nation's family farm community to realize that an organized, justly-paid work force would in the end be to their best advantage. Within the first 15 minutes after meeting the legendary farm labor leader Cesar Chavez some 37 years ago he stressed to this writer that the combination of well-organized farm labor unions and a united family farm movement would create undoubtedly this nationís most powerful bargaining agent when it came to the pursuit of economic and social justice for rural America.
Yet, from the blueberry fields of Maine to the poultry processing plants of the Delmarva region on the Mid-Atlantic coast, from the tobacco fields of North Carolina to the corn fields of Iowa, from the kill floors of the beef packing plants of Nebraska, to the fruit and vegetable fields of California and the Pacific Northwest's fertile valleys, immigrants --- the vast majority of them believed to be illegal --- have historically and continue to be agribusiness's chief supplier of cheap, docile, unorganized labor.
In addition, agribusiness in its single-minded pursuit of such labor, particularly in the U.S. Southwest, has relentlessly instigated, encouraged and sanctioned massive immigration into that region.
Put aside the question of who really are "illegal" immigrants on territory that now comprises one third of the U.S. land mass, land that once belonged to Mexico prior the Treaty of Guadalupe Hidalgo, land literally stolen from the Mexican people by a handful of thievish land barons in what land reformer Henry George once described as "a history of greed, of perjury, of corruption, of spoliation and high-handed robbery for which it will be difficult to find a parallel."
The long-term consequences of such action was that, in the words of Ernesto Galarza, author of classic Merchants of Labor, the Treaty left "the toilers on one side of the border, the capital and the best land on the other."
Therefore, it is no accident that throughout U.S. history the chronic areas of rural poverty have remained the South, where the plantation system has dominated the agricultural scene, and the Southwest where vast tracts of productive land have remained in the hands of a privileged few throughout the years.
Clearly, U.S. agribusiness can say of illegal immigrants that they are the "slaves we rent." When G.C. Hanna of the Department of Vegetable Crops, University of California-Davis, explained why he had undertaken the development of a tomato for processing and canning that could be harvested by a machine, he observed:
"I had gotten interested in the history of asparagus in California and I found that the first asparagus cutters were Chinese and the second group was Japanese. Then we had immigrating Italians and Portuguese, and then the Hindus and then the Filipinos in the 1940's. And then I got looking at the rest of our agricultural labor and I found out that most were imported nationalities and we were running out of nationalities to import."
It is no coincidence that more than 70% of legal and illegal immigrants in the U.S. now live in California, Texas, Florida, New York, New Jersey and Illinois, all major agricultural producing states. Likewise, it is also no coincidence that in 1997 a mere 139,560 farms of the nation's total 1.9 million farms had over 77% of the total U.S. agricultural labor expenses. Yet, today agribusiness both blames and exploits immigrant workers for many of the social ills which pervade our society, for example, their being responsible for the nation's drug traffic and increasing welfare rolls.
But, as John Palacio of the Mexican American Legal Defense and Educational Fund (MALDEF) explains: "Immigrants take jobs Americans don't want. They are not only blamed for economic ills, but exploited for cheap labor. But they contribute much more than they receive." One 1995 study, sponsored by the Cato Institute, a "libertarian research group," found that each year the average immigrant family adds about $2500 in taxes to the economy above what it consumes in public costs.
In 1998 the Associated Press, in a perceptive and riveting five-part series, "Children For Hire," examined child labor in these United States. One finding contained within the AP investigation that squarely puts the question of child labor, particularly in the fields, into sharp focus is that fact that employers saved $155 million in wages in 1996 alone by hiring underage children instead of legal workers.
"If adults were paid a living wage, we wouldn't have child labor," Ann Millard, a Michigan State University anthropologist who studies migrant labor conditions rightfully states. One should also add that if family farmers, particularly those under contract to large food processors, were paid a fair price for what they produce, agriculture would not have the historical problems that it has had when it comes to paying its field labor.
Indeed, a 2000 General Accounting Office report shows that there is "no national agricultural labor shortage at this time," despite efforts by a number of farm industry associations, including the American Farm Bureau Federation, to expand the number of temporary work visas for the so-called guest workers by arguing that some regions face labor shortages, which are likely to increase as immigration officials step up efforts to bar and return illegal aliens.
Farm labor advocates have rejected such requests pointing out that increasing the number of such guest workers will undercut the wages of field laborers nationwide and weaken efforts to unionize them.
As Dolores Huerta, secretary-treasurer of the United Farm Workers, charges, "there's definitely a surplus of farm workers, that explains why there has been a drop in farm-worker wages over the last 10 to 15 years. They have dropped wages substantially because they always know there's a large pool of workers they can get."
Not only are farm workers often exploited by their grower employers, but also by the farm labor contractor. Farm labor contractors, or "crew leaders," as they are known on the East Coast and in the Midwest, are usually persons who recruit workers for a grower and then subsequently often "care for" while at the same time "shake down" the workers, not unlike the manner in which pimps handle their prostitutes.
Recognizing the abuses of farm labor contractors the federal government has sought to regulate their behavior for over the past 37 years. It was not until in the 1980's, however, after negotiations between farm workers and farmers that one of the few consensus farm labor bills in history was enacted in 1983. The Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act switched emphasis from registering farm labor contractors to protecting migrant and seasonal farm workers.
While progressively stricter regulation in recent years was expected to
diminish contractor activity it has been expanding, despite enforcement efforts
indicating that more than half of all contractors investigated are violating at
least one provision of the 1983 act. It was an angry Chavez, founder and
long-time president of the UFW, who once declared: "I would rather that there be
no union at all than to recognize the rotten contractor system."
400,000 EX-BRACEROS SEEK LEGISLATION
BARRING U.S. AND MEXICAN GOVERNMENTS
EFFORTS TO DELAY PAYMENT OF BACK WAGES
Hundreds of elderly former bracero farm workers joined unions, Latino and community groups --- including United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta ---- at a news conference on Wednesday at La Placita Olvera (across from Union Station) in Los Angeles, California to support legislation by the Hispanic Caucus and other congressional leaders ensuring the federal government does not block a fair hearing of the braceros' 60-year-old grievances.
Under the bill, the U.S. and Mexican governments could not block a lawsuit allowing more than 400,000 Mexican farm workers who came to America's aid during World War II to be paid hundreds of millions of dollars that they are owed.
As part the agreement between the U.S. and Mexican governments that brought the men to America beginning in 1942, ten percent of their wages were deducted from every paycheck, to be repaid upon their return to Mexico. The money was collected by the U.S. government, held by Wells Fargo Bank and transferred to Mexico. But six decades later the braceros, now all elderly men, still have not seen the refunds.
The lawsuit, filed in San Francisco federal court last year, charges the U.S. and Mexican governments as well as several banks with breach of contract, breach of trust and fiduciary duties, and unjust enrichment. It demands the return of the money that is owed.
On Wednesday, hundreds of braceros gathered in L.A. with backers to support U.S. Reps. Luis Gutierrez (Dem.-Illinois) and Sam Farr (Dem.-California) as well as members of the Congressional Hispanic Caucus who are introducing legislation prohibiting the U.S. Justice Department from using the passage of time, claims of sovereign immunity and other technical issues to quash the lawsuit.
Also at the L.A. event were Huerta; Jonathan Rothstein, attorney for the braceros in the lawsuit; activists with Alianza Braceroproa; and leaders from the Service Employees International Union and National Council of La Raza.
Termed the Bracero Justice Act of 2002, to be introduced by Gutierrez and Farr, it would require the U.S. to defend the multi-million dollar case on its merits rather than argue the litigation should be dismissed based on statutes of limitations or sovereign immunity arguments. Similar legislation has been used to help address injustices suffered by other groups during World War II.
Huerta and UFW founder Cesar Chavez were among those lobbying Congress
against the abuse-plagued bracero program in the 1950s and '60s. It was finally
ended in 1964.
CLASS ACTION LAW SUIT ALLEGES
WELLS FARGO, U.S AND MEXICAN GOVERNMENTS
FAILED IN THEIR RESPONSIBILITY TO RETURN
DOCKED PAY OF WW II MEXICAN AG WORKERS
VANESSA HUE, SAN FRANCISCO CHRONICLE : Luciano Magana, 80, is trying to collect the rest of his paycheck, owed to him ever since he worked in California's Central Valley, where he picked grapes and tomatoes in the 1940s. Today, Congress will be asked to help him out.
Like thousands of other Mexicans who worked in the United States from 1942 to 1949, Magana had ten percent of his pay docked by the U.S. government and held in a savings account. The money was supposed to be paid to him after he returned home in Michoacan in central Mexico.
However, he and most of his fellow laborers were never able to collect on the savings that decades later, with interest, now total up to $1 billion. A class-action lawsuit filed in U.S. District Court in San Francisco last year alleged that Wells Fargo, which was to receive and transmit the money, and the U.S. and Mexican governments failed in their responsibility to refund the money.
The suit claims the defendants should have ensured that the 400,000 men, called braceros, collected the money from the guest worker program, which was created to meet the U.S. labor shortage during World War II.
A new bill introduced [June 12] in Congress would require the United States to block the government from simply dismissing the suit based on the passage of time or use the excuse of sovereign immunity --- the argument that countries cannot be sued for certain types of claims.
"Everyone stands in a circle and says, 'It's your fault,'" said the bill's co-author, Rep. Sam Farr, Dem.-Carmel. "These workers get technicalities thrown at them. Let these guys have legal standing in court. Let their case be heard." In court documents, the United States maintains the lawsuit is a matter for Mexican courts and that the six-year of statute of limitations for claims has expired. For its part, the Mexican government contends that the U.S. court lacks jurisdiction.
Wells spokesman Larry Haeg said records showed that the bank had transferred all the money it collected to Mexico's central bank. Mexico was then to make the money available to workers who had returned.
Legal experts say the braceros have a tough case to prove. A motion to dismiss the case is expected to be held August 2 in U.S. District Court in San Francisco. The bill, termed the Bracero Justice Act, could help keep the case from being dismissed.
But now, no one seems to know where the money went. The suit does not spell out who would pay the back wages. However, countries often prefer to negotiate settlements through diplomacy, not litigation, said David Wippman, a professor of law at Cornell University. To avoid bad publicity, a country may try to negotiate a lump sum settlement, as Germany and Austria paid out to Holocaust survivors.
Rallies in support of the braceros [were] scheduled [June 12] at the La Tropicana Shopping Center in San Jose, and in Sacramento, Los Angeles and Fresno. "We are not asking for many things, just a return to what is owed to them," said Luis Magana, son of Luciano and a community organizer. The Stockton man called his father a "veteran of the field" whose labor helped fuel the U.S. war effort. In 1970, the teenage Magana arrived to pick cherries and peaches, becoming a migrant worker like other children of the braceros.
The guest labor program --- which discontinued the practice of wage deduction after 1949 ---- continued until 1964, bringing a total of 4.6 million Mexican men to work in the United States. The elder Magana tried to collect in the 1960s, after the guest-worker program ended, but no one had any information, he said.
Magana became a legal U.S. resident in 1962. These days, he has trouble walking because of his diabetes. He spends most of his time now at his four- bedroom house in Lathrop, in San Joaquin County, that he built with his wife in 1980. At times, he misses the hard work that sustained him for so many years.
The braceros toiled for less than a dollar an hour. But their sweat turned out $32 million to $34 million in payroll deductions from 1942 to 1946, according to figures from the Mexican and U.S. government. The plaintiffs estimate an additional $32 million to $36 million was deducted through 1949. Individual payouts to the aging laborers could total tens of thousands of dollars and help create education funds in Mexico and the United States.
The advancing age of the remaining braceros adds urgency to the dispute. "Most of those guys are dead, and they never got a dime," said Juventino Ortiz, 81, of Hollister. The ex-bracero, born in Jalisco, tried to collect at the Mexico City department where he'd been told to go soon after his return, but the officials turned him away. He said an ex-bracero compadre from Guadalajara had died of cancer recently. Another friend in Hollister had a stroke.
Ortiz, who traveled to Washington, D.C., to attend the bill's unveiling, vows to do whatever he can to help his struggling friends.
Terrorist attacks last fall sidetracked competing proposals to revive a Mexican guest worker program. When discussions resume activists say, any new programs should try to address other issues, such as decent wages and working conditions, and allowing laborers to apply for permanent status.
"The braceros contributed so much and were shortchanged," said Mark
Silverman, director of immigration policy at the Immigrant Legal Resource Center
in San Francisco. "We want to avoid that in the future."
DECADES-OLD CONDITIONS REMAIN;
U.S FARM LABOR CAMPS HIDE WORK FORCE
LIVING IN THIRD WORLD SQUALOR
ANN FATHY, NORTH COUNTY TIMES: To see them, you have to look closely. But they are there. Nestled just out of view from wealthy North County communities is a hidden, silent agricultural work force living in Third World squalor.
They live in camps behind the nurseries, in creek beds near the flower fields, clinging to the hill sides next to strawberry fields. No one can really be sure how many homeless farmworkers there are because of the workers' tenuous living conditions and their geographical, linguistic and cultural isolation.
The county's Regional Taskforce on the Homeless estimates there are at least 7,000 day laborers and farmworkers in the county, many of them living in the 100-150 migrant camps throughout North County. The San Diego County Farm Bureau estimates there are about 35,000 agricultural jobs in the county. Camps much like the one near the Agua Hedionda Lagoon just north of Carlsbad's Car Country Mall, where Juan Hernandez lives.
For the 18-year-old Hernandez, dusk is the end of a long day picking strawberries. In his camp, there is no running water or electricity, but it is home to more than a dozen men, some as young as 15. Hernandez says he doesn't mind the hard work or the demanding bosses. Some of the men complain there is not enough work. One of the men said he took on a second job at a plush restaurant washing dishes to supplement his income and send money home.
In the evening, Hernandez's dinner is a warm tortilla and a hot cup of coffee. Most of the other men have gone to the lunch truck, which serves overpriced, plastic-wrapped food.
"I'm here to earn money to send home," he said, while sitting on an old, throwaway chair eating his dinner. The scene is a sharp contrast from the sound of laughter and a motorboat on the lagoon and the expensive homes on the north shore.
Feeling out of place, most of the men speak in short, polite sentences. Some are shy, but many are Indigenous people for whom Spanish is a second language. Just about everyone in the camp is from the southern Mexican state of Oaxaca, whose indigenous populations are among the most marginalized in Mexican society.
The smile full of white teeth and the lowered gaze ---- traits among many in the camps ---- make it difficult to discern whether the answers Hernandez gives are what he believes to be true or what he would like the interviewer to believe is true. As an example, it is surprising how many 18-year-olds there are in the camps. Some look much younger than that and if questioned a little closer some will admit they are 16, maybe 15. At three months, Hernandez is one of the newer arrivals to the camp. His cousin sitting across from him at the dinner table has been here eight months.
Living in the camps is not easy for the workers. They are vulnerable to thieves and bigots. The city hires a security firm to patrol the area, but some of the men fear its employees, too. In November, the city of Carlsbad ordered the residents of the camp evicted and their shacks razed because of health concerns. But the camps have been rebuilt. Again. And again. Now there are three small rooms leaning on each other.
The building is as crude as it is ingenious. Plywood panels are nailed to a wood frame and double-covered with plastic tarps to make the rooms rainproof. Dirt is kicked up against the bottom side for wind protection and the roof is tied by rope to nearby trees for stability.
Hernandez's room is the last facing west, he said. It's a two-man, 8-by-10-foot room. A larger, similarly designed shack is in front of his and another in back of that. There is another to the east up the hillside and many more west along the lagoon up to Interstate 5.
Walking west toward the freeway is a well-worn labyrinth leading to the other shacks. There is music, laughter and conversation hidden behind the tall grass and low canopy of old trees. There are clotheslines with work shirts and pants drying. There is bath water mixed with runoff water from the strawberry fields above.
In another encampment, there is the smell of alcohol and the stench of working men living in close quarters. The talk among them is still of the incident last Sunday in which several of the men allegedly were rounded up by "security guards." The men say there is a boy in the next camp who was among those detained. One of the younger men in the group is asked to lead a group to the boy.
For about a hundred yards, the only sure thing among the fallen branches, soaked grass and loose dirt is the work boots of the young man. At the encampment there are two more shacks. Three young men are sitting with their backs against one of the shacks. One is gently strumming a little guitar.
Inside the opposite shack is a boy 15 years old. The boy, Atilano, said he was "walking up near the strawberry fields when the security men" approached him and asked to see his identification. He said they told him they didn't believe the "green card" was real; it probably wasn't. The men held him for about a half-hour before letting him go. Most of the talking was done by his older brother, the one strumming the guitar. When asked for a description of the vehicle the security men were driving, an older man from a nearby camp joined in the conversation.
"We don't pay attention to what color or what number license plates," the older man said. Having borrowed $1,100 to pay a coyote, or smuggler, to bring him into the country, he said he couldn't afford to lose his job. None of them could.
Each day, the men rise early in the morning to begin work promptly at 6:30 picking strawberries. Several complained there are no breaks until lunch, which comes at about noon. They crouch down to pick the plump, ripe strawberries row by row. When they finish at one end of the nearly 2-mile-long field, the workers walk to the other end and begin picking again. They don't get paid for the time it takes to walk from one end to the other, the men said.
It's a minimum-wage job, $6.75 an hour, but that's about twice the minimum wage for a full day of work in Oaxaca. Some of the men talk about "el contrato," the contract the strawberry company has with the workers. "El Contrato," the men said, means they get paid by the boxful, or $1.75 per box of good strawberries. The older, slower man said he can fill up to 15 boxes on a good day, which means he earns about $26 a day.
"This week, I'll probably make less than $200," he said. "I've been here a month and a half, and I haven't been able to send much money home." The man said he borrowed $10,000 pesos, or about $1,100, with 15% interest to come to the United States. "So you can understand why I can't afford to lose my job," he said. "I'll just keep sinking in debt. When you reach out for that food (from the lunch truck) you really think about it. Sometimes you have just one meal a day."
Few of the men who are in the country illegally wander far from the camps. To break away from the boredom, solitude and monotony of camp life, some will walk to nearby stores. Others will walk around the fields and some will drink alcohol. The solitude also makes the workers good customers for prostitution rings that bring women from Mexico, according to North County health and law enforcement authorities. Parties are organized for the men bringing women and beer to sell to them.
Sexually transmitted diseases are also a problem, said Eduardo Gomez, a health worker for the Vista Community Clinic. He visits the camps each Tuesday looking for sick workers. Gomez said the clinic has been able to reach the men by teaching them safe sex practices and distributing condoms to help prevent the spread of diseases. Hernandez said the worst time for boredom is the weekends when there is no work. Local farmworker advocates from the Ecumenical Migrant Outreach Project try to help by bringing the men food and organizing parties with traditional dances, music and other entertainment for them.
The Ecumenical group also takes some of the men on Sundays to Fallbrook to teach them how to build "Superadobe" homes out of mud, barbed wire and plastic sandbags. Like most ordinary teen-agers, Hernandez says he prefers to sleep on his days off. When asked when he will return to his family in Oaxaca, he said maybe in a year. And what he will do later this year when there is no more work in the strawberry fields?
He simply shrugs his shoulders. "I don't know, we'll see," he said.
UFW SEEKING RIGHT TO FIRST-CONTRACT
BINDING ARBITRATION FOR AG WORKERS
PREVIOUSLY AWARDED TO RACE TRACK EMPLOYEES
In 1985, the Legislature reclassified the grooms who labor at race tracks as agricultural employees so the tracks could avoid paying them overtime. In 2001, legislators and Gov. Davis enacted a law granting these farm workers at race tracks binding arbitration to help them win their first union contracts.
In 2002, the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO is sponsoring SB 1736, by state Senate President pro Tem John Burton, to grant all California farm workers the same right to first-contract binding arbitration that both Democratic and Republican lawmakers gave race track workers last year.
SB 1736 is needed to help tens of thousands of farm workers get what they voted for in state-supervised secret-ballot elections: life-improving union contracts for themselves and their families.
Of the 428 companies where farm workers voted for the UFW since 1975, only 185 have signed contracts with the Cesar Chavez-founded union. Many growers retaliated against their workers' choice at the ballot box by never agreeing to union contracts. Growers hired union-busing attorneys skilled at using endless delaying tactics. Such illegal conduct contributes to the grinding poverty farm workers continue to suffer.
The solution to this bad-faith bargaining under California's farm labor law, the "make-whole remedy," doesn't work. Under make-whole, employers must make their workers "whole" for economic losses suffered from violations of the law such as failing to negotiate in good faith.
But it takes years, sometimes decades, of investigation, prosecution and litigation before farm workers receive anything from the make whole remedy. Few workers have benefited. In the few cases where money was paid, it was probably less than what growers spent on attorney fees in litigating through the administrative and court systems.
"Delay remains inevitable" under the current law, Agricultural Labor
Relations Board Chairwoman Genevieve A. Shrioma wrote this year. By the time
"make-whole orders become final, they may be unenforceable, either because the
[grower] has gone out of business or [is] unable to pay [or because] many of the
[farm workers] to whom make-whole is owed have vanished." Farm labor is still a
highly seasonal and transient
Only the binding arbitration in SB 1736 will aid the thousands of farm
workers who have waited for years while talks for union contracts have dragged
on without hope of progress.
SINCE 1975 ONLY 185 AG FIRMS
SIGN UNION CONTRACTS
OF 428 COS. WHERE WORKERS
VOTED FOR UFW IN SECRET ELECIONS
THE [SALINAS] CALIFORNIAN: The relations between Salinas Valley growers and farm-labor unions haven't been exactly rosy over the years, but many have been red, as in hot, as in contentious. While some progress has been made and some contracts have been signed, it is arguable that far more distance -- and time -- has come between the two sides since farm-labor organizing began in the 1960s.
Along comes Senate Bill 1736, a contract negotiating tool that could speed things up and keep the negotiators' noses to the grindstone of bargaining in good faith until an agreement is reached.
To this day, contract negotiations between many growers and their workers (who've agreed to union representation) remain slow, uneven, bumpy and stifled. Some contract talks shamefully have dragged on for decades. In that time, workers and companies have come and gone, but it's the workers who tend to suffer most from watching the process fail them once they've won the right to bargain for better pay and better working conditions.
In fact, it was not uncommon to see workers face an array of stalling tactics. Some growers would even walk away from the bargaining table, close their operations, then hire another group of workers and start over.
This bill is aimed at the bad-faith bargainers. Sure, it's a labor-sponsored bill. But it also could be used to discipline unscrupulous unions that engage in stalling tactics.
Unfortunately, it's agribusiness that has dragged out most of the talks and the lives of some of America's most impoverished laborers. "Of the 428 companies where farm workers voted for the UFW in secret elections since 1975, only 185 have signed union contracts," states a summary of SB 1736, now awaiting an Assembly vote.
Simon Salinas, Dem.-Salinas, is listed as a co-author of the bill. Salinas, a migrant farm worker in his youth, presumably understands the need for focused, timely contract talks and the benefits they would bring to many people in his district.
SB 1736 would require "binding arbitration" to end impasses in contract talks. Binding arbitration basically sets a deadline and guarantees that both sides will come to an agreement. SB 1736 would apply only to farm companies (and labor unions) whose workers have voted to organize.
Agribusiness opposes the bill. It argues that "this bill removes the employer's right to collective bargaining," and that "existing law already gives .workers have the right to strike in order to exhibit their economic power," according to a summary of the bill.
Strike? The goal of negotiations should be to reach an agreement, a contract -- not to drive a wedge deeper between employer and worker and have problems spill into the streets. If SB 1736 can be a vehicle for reaching agreement, it must be added to the tools at the bargaining table.
Salinas Valley agriculture is coming off a year in which its production value
($2.85 billion) fell about five percent in 2001 from 2000. The future of the ag
industry depends on both growers and labor. Each has a stake in maintaining its
health and growth. They must take advantage of more opportunities to improve
their relationship, starting with good-faith talks.
CALIFORNIA ASSEMBLY LABOR COMMITTEE
PASSES BILL FORCING GROWERS TO SIGN
FARM WORKER CONTRACT IF THEY REFUSE
NEUTRAL BINDING ARBITRATION PROCESS
VICTORY KEITH, LA OPINION: A law that would allow farm workers to unionize themselves and obtain just contracts was approved yesterday by the Assembly Labor Committee.
SB 1736 authored by Senate Pro-Tem, John Burton (Dem.- San Francisco), would create an amendment to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 (ALRB), forcing growers to sign a contract with the farm workers union if they refuse to do so through the use of a neutral binding arbitration process. If after 90 days an agreement is not reached by both parties, this proposal provides the ability to bring in a neutral third party mediator.
The proposal then provides for a binding mediation process. If an agreement is not reached after 30 days--what is know as binding arbitration would be implimented --- where both must accept the conditions of the outside mediator.
"For years, various employers have refused to give what is just to its workers, and thousands have been forced to live without fair wages, decent working conditions and medical insurances for their families", said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers (UFW), to the Opinion.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Act was created to protect the rights of farm workers to orgainize and to engage in union activities. However, in 1980, under Governor George Deukmeijan, the law virtually was suspended, when he eliminated essential funding and personal, said Rodriguez. "The growers were protected by the governor," added Rodriguez.
The reality is from 1975, workers voted to be reprersented by the UFW at 428 farms, but only 185 have signed contracts.
Jose Castrate has worked at Picsweet Mushrooms Farms, in Ventura County since 1972. In 1975, the workers voted to be represented by the UFW. They received a contract in 1980 after holding a strike. "The negotiations were difficult, but people were very content and satisfied for several years," said Castrate.
In 1987 the company changed ownership to the current one. Since then, they been refusing to sign a contract with the workers and the only pay increase, according to Castrate, was a two cents increase.
"We are requesting very little; we want respect, medical insurance for our children, a pension plan, just wages. They are making money, but it does not matter to them that our families are suffering. This is the reason we need a law that forces them to sit at the same table and negotiate with us."
Those that are against the proposal say that the arbitration law would forever remove the possibility of the collective bargaining process. They add that the existing law is good and that if there are "some provisions that are failing," we must work each of those provisions independently.
"This proposal creates a disadvantage for the farmers and gives to the unions more power to go on strike and to put whole harvests in danger. Why are you going punish eighty four thousand farmers? " said Shirley Batchman, of California Citrus Mutual.
"There are two or three employers that have not negotiated contracts with the UFW and this says to me that they (UFW) are not good negotiators.They don't know how to say yes to the contracts we are handing them," said Mike Webb, Western Growest Association spokesman.
"Some employers have refused to speak with us! We have given them sufficient time to negotiate in good faith, but it is obvious that they are not going it to do, unless the law supports our rights," said Rodriguez.
This proposal has a force allied in its corner; the Latino caucus,with its historic 22 members, most of which come from families who have worked in the fields. "This is a new day and things have changed. The demographics show that we have representation at the capitol. We are no longer we are a unrepresented voice, but instead we are a political force," concluded Rodriguez.
SB 1736 now goes to the plenary session of the Assembly, where it will be
discussed in the next weeks.
CHURCHES, POLITICIANS CALL UPON
PICTSWEET MUSHROOM FARMS,
UNITED FOODS INC. TO NEGOTIATE CONTRACT
AFTER UFW RECOGNITION VOTE IN MID-1970'S
JOHN SCHEIBE, VENTURA COUNTY STAR: Representatives from churches across the nation gathered [June 1] in Ventura [California] under a giant portrait of the late Cesar Chavez to protest the continued lack of a labor contract for Pictsweet Mushroom Farms workers.
"The Scriptures call on us as Christians to stand with the poor," said Sam Tricket, a member of the National Farm Worker Ministry who flew from Gainesville, Florida, to protest the working conditions at the Ventura mushroom farm. The St. Louis-based ministry was formed in 1971 to organize religious support for farm workers.
"We're here because this is a basic issue of justice and fairness," Tricket said. "All workers deserve a fair income."
The United Farm Workers union, founded by Chavez nearly 40 years ago, negotiated a series of contracts for workers at the mushroom farm starting in the mid-1970s. But the workers have been without a contract since 1987, when United Foods Inc., which owns Pictsweet, purchased the farm.
Assemblywoman Hannah-Beth Jackson, Dem.-Santa Barbara, also spoke at [last] Friday's labor rally at the mushroom farm entrance off Olivas Park Drive. Jackson discussed her support for SB1736. The bill, introduced by state Senate President Pro Tem John Burton, would allow binding, third-party arbitration of agricultural labor disputes.
"Under this bill, Pictsweet would be forced to the negotiating table should they be found to be acting in bad faith," Jackson said. Currently, only public safety officers and firefighters can have an outside arbitrator impose a contract on management, although that right is now being challenged in court. "I'm confident the governor will sign this bill once it reaches his desk," Jackson said of SB1736.
Pictsweet officials could not be reached Friday for comment.
Pictsweet workers say they want a contract that gives them a better medical plan with dental and vision coverage, a better pension plan and higher wages. Pictsweet officials have said workers are treated and paid fairly. Jackson disagreed.
"So much of what happens in this country is driven by profit," Jackson told
the crowd of about 30 protesters. "We're here because we believe in justice for
all workers, whether they are working in fields or Wall Street. All workers
deserve dignity and respect."
AG EMPLOYERS SEEK TO TRANSFORM
U.S FARM LABOR INTO "GUEST WORKER" PROGRAM
WITH WORSE WAGES AND WORKING CONDITIONS
AND NO IMPORTANT ECONOMIC BARGAINING POWER
BRUCE GOLDSTEIN, FARMWORKER JUST FUND, INC.: Farmworker supporters seek policies to modernize wages and working conditions, reduce the discrimination in labor laws against agricultural workers, and stabilize the work force by reducing high employee turnover.The many undocumented workers employed in American agriculture should be permitted to gain legal immigration status leading to citizenship and democratic freedoms, including the right to vote, and hopefully to better working conditions.
Agricultural employers, through Sen. Larry Craig's guestworker bill (S. 1161) and others, seek to transform America's farm labor into a system of temporary foreign workers -- "guest workers" on short-term work visas --- employed at even worse wages and working conditions than currently required by law. As "non-immigrants" this temporary foreign labor force would have no meaningful economic bargaining power or influence on political representatives since they would never have the opportunity to become immigrants or citizens.
Recently, agribusiness representatives reneged on positions they took in a prior compromise. Now they are demanding labor law changes that would relegate H-2A guestworkers to discriminatory protections and remedies as compared to those applicable to other farmworkers.
Background: The Prior Compromise In December 2000, the United Farm Workers (UFW) and a coalition of the major agricultural and landscape employers, working with several members of Congress reached a compromise. Bipartisan efforts to enact the compromise at that time were thwarted, primarily by Sen. Phil Gramm. That compromise would have (1) created a legalization program to extend legal immigration status to undocumented farm workers who have been working in the US and continue to work in agriculture for a period of time; and (2) made major reforms in the existing agricultural guest worker program, the H-2A program.
The current H-2A visa program would have been "streamlined" in response to employers' demands for less bureaucracy. The program's main wage protection would have been frozen at then-current wage rates for three years until studies could be performed for Congressional review. In addition, H-2A guestworkers finally would be covered by the Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act of 1983 ("AWPA"), the principal federal employment law for farmworkers.
At the beginning of 2001, the growers reneged on the compromise agreement. Sen. Craig introduced his guestworker bill that is anathema to farmworker, labor, civil rights, Latino and immigration advocates. Sen. Miller and Rep. Cannon introduced grower-supported legislation to lower the H-2A program wage rates (S.1442/H.R. 2457). The Bush Administration delayed issuing the 2001 and 2002 H-2A program wage rates, depriving thousand of US and foreign farmworkers wage increases. A lawsuit filed by FJF for the UFW helped prompt DOL to issue those wage rates.
Sen. Kennedy and Rep. Berman, supported by the UFW and others, introduced legislation (S.1313/H.R. 2736) to create a legalization program and revise the H-2A program, based partly on the prior compromise. None of these bills has advanced, but the growers are lobbying strenuously, particularly for the Cannon/Miller H-2A wage-cut bill.
Negotiations began again and farmworkers made concessions. Rep. Berman and the UFW, hoping to reach a new compromise with the agribusiness representatives, agreed to make additional concessions, most notably on the H-2A program's "adverse effect wage rate" (which DOL annually issues for each state to prevent the use of guestworkers from undermining domestic farmworkers' wage rates).
Instead of reverting to the current H-2A wage formula after the three-year freeze (in the event Congress took no action on the study), Rep. Berman agreed to cap further wage H-2A increases after the freeze at the annual increase in inflation as measured by the Consumer Price Index (CPI). Farmworkers could easily lose 6% to 15% in wage increases over three years, and then could be harmed by the cap if wages are rising faster than inflation. These concessions are worth tens of millions of dollars to H-2A growers, but the growers seek still more.
Agribusiness Wants Guestworkers To Have Fewer Labor Rights and Remedies. The growers reneged on their agreement to amend AWPA to cover H-2A guestworkers. AWPA is the main federal employment law protecting for farm workers. It requires employers to disclose job terms to workers at the time of recruitment and comply with those job terms, and allows farmworkers to sue in federal court to enforce them. It also requires growers to use only licensed farm labor contractors and, when providing housing or transportation, to comply with safety standards.
The December 2000 compromise would have streamlined the H-2A program by reducing employers' paperwork requirements and government oversight designed to protect both domestic and foreign workers. The UFW would never have agreed to the removal of those worker protections from the H-2A program without adding H-2A workers to AWPA's coverage.
Rep. Berman and the UFW have attempted to accommodate the growers' contention that some provisions of AWPA do not take into account the special circumstances of H-2A workers. However, H-2A workers must have substantially the same legal rights as U.S. workers. Otherwise, employers will have an irresistible incentive to hire temporary H-2A workers and conditions for foreign and domestic workers would worsen.
The growers' latest informal proposals would result in differential treatment for workers doing the same work for the same employer depending on whether the worker was an H-2A worker or a U.S. worker. H-2A workers would be allowed access to court to remedy a narrow set of adverse employer actions, rather than violations of the full set of job terms. For example:
> U.S. workers would have the right to file a lawsuit if the employer
failed to comply with any of the terms of the job offer or misrepresented the
terms and conditions of employment; but H-2A workers would not.
> U.S. workers would have a right to a written statement on payday showing the hours worked, amounts earned and deductions from their pay; but H-2A workers would not.
> An employer could not require U.S. workers to purchase goods and service solely from him, but could force H-2A workers to do so.
> U.S. workers would have a cause of action if the employer retaliated against them for filing a complaint with DOL for poor housing; H-2A workers would not.
> U.S. workers could sue to remedy grossly substandard housing; H-2A workers could not.
> U.S. workers would have to be transported in safe vehicles with adequate insurance; the growers' proposal would not guarantee the H-2A workers safe transportation from the border to the work site and would allow different insurance standards for H-2A and U.S. workers.
H-2A Workers Would Be Denied Coverage Under Other State and Federal Laws. The December 2000 compromise preserved H-2A workers' rights under federal and state law. The latest proposal from the growers seeks to extinguish those rights in exchange for the very restricted rights described above: The growers' proposals states: "H-2A workers may enforce the following rights through the private right of action provided in subsection (c) and no other rights shall exist under federal or State law . . . ."
In particular, the growers would deny H-2A workers the fundamental right to pursue claims for breach of their employment contracts in state courts. In addition, H-2A workers would be denied coverage under state laws that protect farmworkers from abusive treatment --- some of which offer broader coverage, greater protections and more effective remedies than do federal laws. Such pre-emption and the proposed withdrawal of coverage of other federal labor rights are utterly inappropriate. Farmworkers already lack the protections of other occupations.
Using "Guestworkers" as Strikebreakers. For many years, Congress has prohibited employers from replacing striking workers with temporary foreign contract labor. The bi-partisan U.S. Commission on Immigration Reform recommended in 1997 that employers seeking temporary foreign workers should be required to attest (or state) that "there is no strike or lockout in the course of a labor dispute involving the occupational classification at the place of employment." Congress followed this recommendation in the H-1B program (for "specialty" occupations). The December 2000 compromise used the H-1B program language.
Now the growers are insisting on language to create a gaping loophole, uncertainty and unnecessary litigation. They feel that they should only have to attest that the "specific job opportunity for which the employer is requesting an H-2A worker is not vacant because the former occupant is on strike or being locked out in the course of a labor dispute." A likely result will be, for example, that an employer will argue that a worker who went on strike during the strawberry harvest could be replaced by an H-2A guest worker when the cucumber season begins at the same farm because each crop season constitutes a different "specific job," even though the same labor dispute continued. The former language should be followed.
Conclusion. Farmworkers deserve better conditions than currently
exist. The growers' demands are unreasonable because they would doom
farmworkers to a 19th century-style labor market based on "guestworkers" as we
move through the 21st century. The UFW and Rep. Berman have sought to be
flexible by offering concessions from both the Kennedy-Berman legislation and
the December 2000 compromise. We hope that the growers will recognize the
significant concessions already made and that a reasonable compromise will
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