Marcos Bretón

Why are California’s most vulnerable workers denied by Democrats?

Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, argues against paying the state’s farm laborers overtime. “It would kill me,” the farmer says.
Paul Wenger, president of the California Farm Bureau Federation, argues against paying the state’s farm laborers overtime. “It would kill me,” the farmer says. Modesto Bee file

Farming is a big part of Sacramento’s identity, a source of civic pride in a state capital that is a hub of food science and sustainable growing.

We love our farmers markets, locally grown food and our stature as the nerve center of an industry that feeds the world.

As long as we don’t focus too much on the human beings who pick that food, it’s all good.

It’s easy to ignore them as we blow by their work sites while driving on Interstate 5, Highway 99 or rural roads around the region. They are out there like phantoms in the crop rows, toiling long hours in the scorching Central Valley sun.

Unlike other workers, they are not entitled to overtime after eight hours.

A bill to secure overtime for farm laborers after eight hours of work died on the floor of the Assembly last month. It fell three votes shy of passage, a defeat made possible because eight Democrats voted no and seven abstained.

The Legislature still has a chance to make it right, though. Lorena Gonzalez, the San Diego assemblywoman who authored the overtime bill, has inserted her proposal in another piece of legislation, AB 1066. It passed the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee last week and heads to a hearing in the Senate Appropriations Committee on Aug 11. From there, it could go to the full Senate before heading back to the Assembly for another go at members who had no good reason to vote no or abstain in the first place.

The defeat of the first bill last month was humiliating for Anthony Rendon, the Assembly speaker, who could not control his own caucus on an issue that should have been a slam dunk in the bluest of blue states such as California.

It’s a labor issue. It’s a social justice issue. Most of the workers affected are Latino. Yet down it went.

It was one thing when Assembly members such as Jim Cooper of Elk Grove voted no. Cooper is not shy about touting the importance of agriculture in a district that includes farmers in Galt and wine growers in Lodi. But so-called “progressive” liberals in urban districts also caved. These included Evan Low, a 33-year-old rising star in the Assembly from the Silicon Valley. Low is a graduate of my alma mater, San Jose State University, where there is a monument to the legacy of labor leader Cesar Chavez on campus. Low is also a member of the California Legislative Lesbian, Gay, Bisexual and Transgender Caucus, and he is a Democratic superdelegate who endorsed Hillary Clinton for president.

He voted no on farm laborer overtime. So did Assemblyman Marc Levine of Marin County and Bill Quirk of Hayward. Assembly members Adrin Nazarian of Van Nuys, Tom Daly of Anaheim and Richard Bloom of Santa Monica all abstained.

It was a reflection of the influence of the $54 billion California agricultural industry and of a disconnect between progressive ideals and farm laborer rights. It’s one thing to line up sure votes for labor – so long as that labor is not primarily Mexican and employed by one of the largest industries in California.

Forty years ago, growers were demonized in California as cruel overseers of a trampled workforce. Chavez’s grape boycotts captured sympathetic headlines in the late 1960s when they were supported by national luminaries such as the late Senator Robert Kennedy.

But over time the growers adjusted and flexed their muscle at the state Capitol. The California Farm Bureau Federation presented an image of humble family farmers while the industry boomed like few others.

Paul Wenger, the current president of the CFBF, is a Modesto almond and walnut farmer who employs three full-time workers from Mexico he views as extensions of his own family.

Wenger chafes at the idea of the downtrodden farm laborer and the evil farmer exploiting his labor. For Wenger, paying his workers overtime after eight hours simply doesn’t pencil out.

“It would kill me,” he said Friday. “It would kill family farms. There is so much uncertainty in our business. We are subject to the weather, to new minimum wage laws we have to absorb. We just can’t do this.”

I’ve known Wenger for years. He is a decent man who worked hard to try to pass comprehensive immigration reform before it stalled in the House of Representatives. When Wenger says he and his family worry about maintaining 200 acres of crops that have been in his family since 1910, he is not exaggerating.

But there are two points to consider when weighing agricultural opposition to extending overtime benefits to farm laborers.

Philip Martin, a professor of Agricultural and Resource Economics at UC Davis, recently wrote, “Agriculture is often characterized as an industry of small farmers producing similar commodities from similarly sized farms. However, a higher share of the workers employed on California farms are employed on large farms with 1,000 or more employees … Indeed, 64 percent of farmworkers were employed on farms with 100 or more employees during the third quarter of 2014, compared to 45 percent of workers in all California establishments.”

The other point to consider is that growers have historically predicted dire financial consequences for making modest improvements to farm laborers’ working conditions. That was the case in 1976, when farm laborers were granted the right to collect overtime after 10-hour work days. It was the case in 1970, when the the federal Migrant and Seasonal Agricultural Worker Protection Act granted farm laborers the right to breaks, potable drinking water, toilet facilities and the ability to file job complaints.

Gonzalez said this issue is about getting California to focus again on a population that slipped off the front page a long time ago. “Some of us complain how hot it is as we are walking from the Capitol to (nearby restaurants),” she said last week. “Imagine how hot it is for people laboring in the fields.”

That image of workers in the field is disconnected from the imagery of healthy, sustainable agriculture. It’s not part of the sumptuous dinner served to local elites on the Tower Bridge each fall. That’s why “progressives” can vote no on farm worker overtime and feel little or no heat for it.

It’s a picture of California that’s not flattering.