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California Assembly blows chance to right historical wrong

California farmworker overtime debate gets emotional, biblical

Both sides of a measure to provide farm workers with overtime pay gave impassioned pleas during the Assembly floor debate on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Video courtesy of the California Channel.
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Both sides of a measure to provide farm workers with overtime pay gave impassioned pleas during the Assembly floor debate on Thursday, June 2, 2016. Video courtesy of the California Channel.

It’s hard to champion the cause of invisible people, especially when powerful forces are working against them. We saw that last week when the California Assembly voted down a bill to grant additional overtime pay to farmworkers living at or below the poverty line.

That the vote itself barely garnered a rumble from the press is one of the many reasons why the most vulnerable workers in California can be restricted of rights enjoyed by all other hourly workers in the state.

“All I’m trying to do is to give my daughters a little more for their lives,” said Miriam Vieyra, a 32-year-old grape picker who rode four hours in a bus from Delano to plead her case to California lawmakers. “With a little more help from my paycheck, I can buy a house where my children can live. As it is, there is never enough money.”

Vieyra, a member of the United Farm Workers union, estimates she earns $12,000 a year for working the harvest fields in Kern County – poverty wages. Farmworkers like her can sometimes earn overtime after 10 hours of work a day. But the bill shot down at the Capitol last week would have dropped the overtime threshold to eight hours.

The 10-hour threshold has been in place since the mid-1970s, which is worth noting because the ’70s were last time farmworker issues were front-page news in California. It’s been a long, hard 40 years since then. The political environment in the state has flipped. Democrats once allied with the UFW are now in charge. But that doesn’t seem to matter.

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It wasn’t Republicans who cast the decisive votes to deny farmworkers a right enjoyed by most other workers in America since the Great Depression. It was Democrats.

The firewall around farmworker pay is maintained by the state’s $54 billion agricultural industry. It’s maintained by lobbyists hired by agribusiness and the Capitol politicians who vote their way.

The reason the bill failed on a 37-35 vote – four short of the needed 41-vote majority – was because eight Democrats voted no and seven abstained. Among the no votes was Assemblyman Jim Cooper of Elk Grove. His vote was emblematic of the influence agribusiness has in the Capitol.

“I normally vote with labor, but I have a lot of ag in my district,” Cooper said, referring primarily to constituents in Lodi and Galt. “In my district alone, they produce $2.3 billion in commodities. Cherries, pears, apples, walnuts. ... I voted for minimum wage, but I didn’t feel comfortable with this bill.”

Farmworkers remain the only hourly workers denied overtime after eight hours of work in a day, said Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego-based Democrat who wrote the failed farmworker overtime bill.

“This is bill is so reasonable,” Gonzalez said last week. It would have been phased in incrementally through 2020. In tough economic times, the governor of California would have been allowed to suspend overtime gains for farmworkers.

But no. The answer is always no.

How is this possible?

In three decades as a journalist in California, I’ve witnessed the erosion of public support for farmworkers in the court of public opinion. Their plight as front-page news is frozen in the 1960s and ’70s when briefly – very briefly – the deplorable working conditions and meager pay they endured was a real public concern.

I normally vote with labor, but I have a lot of ag in my district.

Assemblyman Jim Cooper, D-Elk Grove

In the early ’90s, though the issue had faded and grape boycotts by the UFW no longer captivated as they once had, I was part of a series of stories called “Fields of Pain.” It was published on the front page of The Bee over five days in 1991 and detailed the poor pay, impoverished living conditions and health traumas farmworkers experienced due to pesticide exposure in the Central Valley.

The response was overwhelming. My voicemail was flooded with pledges from good people willing to help. They offered food and clothing. But just as important as the donations was the empathy people showed toward the subjects of our stories.

It’s different today. It’s not that there aren’t caring people out there. It’s that workers from Mexico and Central America had been politicized even before Donald Trump, the presumptive Republican presidential nominee, who uses the term “Mexican” as a slur on a near-daily basis.

Today, stories about vulnerable workers like Vieyra are often met with silence or with anti-immigrant invective.

The irony is that overtime first became law for workers with the passage of the Federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which also established minimum-wage and child-labor standards.

Back then, some segregationist politicians fought hard against establishing these laws for workers: “There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor,” said Mark Wilcox, a Florida congressman as the law was being debated in the late 1930s. “You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it.”

With the denial of the overtime vote, you can keep a largely Latino population from equal access to pay and get away with it.

“The truth is, farms were once plowed by slave labor in the United States,” Gonzalez said. “Even though we freed slaves, we then had a system of sharecroppers. … In the 20th century, the white Southern plantation owners cut a deal, during the New Deal, to exempt the black farmworkers.”

Immigrants began doing the farm labor work, like Gonzalez’s grandfather and my late mother. The exemptions to overtime pay held.

In 2015, there were roughly 440,000 farm jobs in California. According to the 2015 U.S. Department of Agriculture Farm Labor Survey, field and livestock workers averaged $11.89 an hour, but were usually employed for only about three-quarters of the year.

The arguments against overtime have remained the same – farmers can’t afford it. Farmers barely make it. Farmers work hard, too. They face the whims of weather and the seasons and require more flexibility with workers.

“I think the depiction of what farm work is about is not correct – ‘This bill is bad for family farms. Small family farms are not exempt from this law,’ ” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Plumas Lake. “My Irish ancestors who couldn’t get a job in New York because of Irish-need-not-apply laws were farmers. … They earned a living by farming and treated their farmworkers well.”

It’s a nice sentiment, but the reality is that farmworkers like Vieyra barely subsist with what they earn now. “You’re always out there in the fields, stooped over with dirt in your hair and your eyes,” she said. “I’m not asking for anything I haven’t earned. I’ve remained positive and teach my daughters to work hard. I’m getting my GED. But there is not enough money to live. Not enough.”

Her words are powerful. It’s too bad they fall on deaf ears.      

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