Marcos Bretón

Farmworkers give up day’s pay to see leaders say ‘no se puede’

The farmworkers showed up at the Capitol on Thursday, giving up a day’s earnings to witness history made. And then it wasn’t.

It was a disgrace.

They were there, these members of California’s most vulnerable labor force, to see the state Assembly vote on a bill to grant them overtime pay. The vote didn’t happen. Assembly “leader” Anthony Rendon called it off. Rendon apparently didn’t think he had the votes, though many in the know at the Capitol believe he did.

People close to the whole process think Rendon, D-Paramount, chickened out, got cold feet at the thought of last-minute defections from his caucus and feared an embarrassing loss on an issue that should not be an issue.

Many classifications of workers in America have enjoyed the right of overtime pay after eight hours of work for roughly eight decades now.

It remains a right denied to farmworkers in California, and the only way this injustice will ever be dispatched is with political will and leadership. Senate leader Kevin de León, D-Los Angeles, showed such leadership when he dragged his caucus over the finish line to pass farmworker overtime on the Senate floor Monday.

The measure, AB 1066 authored by Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, a Democrat from San Diego, was fiercely debated under de León’s watch. The bill would extend to farmworkers the same overtime rights as every other hourly wage group in California. That means getting paid time-and-a-half for every hour they work over eight in a day or 40 in a week. They would receive double pay for working more than 12 hours a day.

When it came for senators to vote, AB 1066 got pushed back. De León was absent from his desk when the bill was called. At that moment, he was doing what leaders do. De León was twisting arms.

There was some question whether Sen. Richard Pan, a Democrat from Sacramento, was going to vote yes. Local leaders tried to get a meeting with Pan on Monday morning but were unsuccessful.

During Monday’s session, Pan kept darting in and out of the chamber.

One of the reasons farmworker overtime has failed is that California’s powerful agricultural industry has been adept at picking off small handfuls of “progressive” Democrats who either vote no or are missing in action when the vote comes up.

It doesn’t matter that Big Ag took in $56 billion in revenue despite severe water shortages caused by California’s debilitating drought. It doesn’t matter that 1066 would phase in overtime pay for farmworkers beginning in 2019.

The growers are lined up against this measure, Capitol Republicans are in lockstep with them and the California Chamber of Commerce. One Republican senator even suggested that California’s economy would crash if agricultural workers received OT.

Mind you, this pitched opposition is stacked against a working population that is making, on average, less than $20,000 a year in annual earnings, according to Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis.

Doomsday predictions about overtime pay for farmworkers and an increased minimum wage are simply overblown scare tactics.

“Raising farmworker wages in the U.S. to $15 an hour – and annual earnings to $15,000 – would represent a 47 percent wage increase,” wrote Tracie McMillian in a March National Geographic article.

“That might seem huge, but Martin says Americans spend so little on produce that it wouldn’t mean much for families’ grocery bills,” she wrote.

So why are so many “progressives” willingly going along with growers and Republicans? It was a question hanging in the air on Monday when de León appeared on the Senate floor.

Speaking after a stream of Republicans, including Ted Gaines of El Dorado Hills, de León took the floor and tossed a shout-out to Pan for bringing the concerns of small dairy farmers to his attention.

So suddenly, 1066 would allow small agricultural employers with 25 employees or less an extra three years to comply with a new farmworker overtime law.

Pan voted yes. All the drama had played out behind closed doors. De León won. The bill was passed. Leadership prevailed.

Between Monday and Thursday, when the Assembly was scheduled to take up 1066, there was intense lobbying of Democrats to do the right thing.

One Assembly Democrat – Ken Cooley of Rancho Cordova – refused to discuss the issue with local leaders.

Sacramento County Supervisor Phil Serna and Sacramento Mayor-elect Darrell Steinberg both reached out to Cooley. Cooley had met with Serna and told him he was a “no.” He wouldn’t meet with Serna and Steinberg together to discuss the issue further.

Serna did catch Cooley on the Assembly floor, but he wouldn’t be budged. Despite pathetically low farmworker wages and despite the exemption of farmworkers from overtime pay after eight hours, Cooley was not moved.

Voters in the Sacramento region who consider themselves progressives should never forget that.

But despite him, the 41 Assembly votes apparently were in place to pass 1066 after another version of that bill fell three votes shy of passage in May.

The Capitol was filled with the workers whose fate the legislators controlled. They sacrificed their pay to be on hand to see a right to pay in the future secured. They waited for history to be made. The hours passed. And then Rendon pulled the plug.

Outrage was palpable. Gonzalez, the author of 1066, looked near tears as Rendon stood before farmworkers and offered hollow words of California waiting too long to bestow overtime rights for the people who pick our fruit and vegetables. Rendon has vowed to pass the bill Monday.

If I wrote about the Capitol full time, I think I would be busting Rendon’s chops every week. Brother, it has been too long for farmworkers in California. This issue shouldn’t be this hard to resolve. You have a majority in your caucus and you act like it’s a minority.

Are you the leader or not? Because if you’re not, then stand aside. What happened Thursday was a joke. If you’re afraid of members of your caucus defecting, then act like a leader and get your members in line.

Rendon has vowed to pass farmworker overtime this week. He had better. Thursday will be forgotten quickly if he does. But if he doesn’t, infamy lingers a bit longer. 

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