Marcos Bretón

Countdown to Jerry Brown: Will he help farmworkers, or stab them in the back?

Farmworker overtime bill moves to governor's desk

The California legislature's approval of a bill to phase in state overtime rules for farmworkers awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. Agricultural workers already receive some overtime pay under California law thanks to a 2002 state directive that
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The California legislature's approval of a bill to phase in state overtime rules for farmworkers awaits Gov. Jerry Brown's signature. Agricultural workers already receive some overtime pay under California law thanks to a 2002 state directive that

It’s not over yet. Gov. Jerry Brown still has to sign overtime pay for farmworkers into law, and there is no guarantee that he will. This particular issue is just that divisive.

Simply getting a farmworker overtime bill to Brown’s desk has been an ideological war reflecting the ascension of some Latino legislators, the weaknesses of the state Republican Party, and the years of political failure surrounding this issue. The unspoken driver of this battle has been a lack of federal immigration reform, which has prevented the establishment of a larger, legalized workforce in California. As a result, there has been growing pressure to more fairly compensate those working long hours in California’s fields – and here we are.

It’s been nearly 80 years since many classifications of workers were granted the right of overtime pay after eight hours of work. California farmworkers will finally gain that right if Brown signs AB 1066, passed Monday by the state Assembly.

The effort in the Assembly was led by the bill’s author, Lorena Gonzalez, a 44-year-old legislator from San Diego. An illustration of her political orientation can be found in her Capitol office, where she has hung a painting of the Virgin of Guadalupe – patron saint of Mexico – hovering above the eagle symbol of the United Farm Workers.

Gonzalez’s political perspective began taking form in Chicano Park, a hub for art and activism located beneath the Coronado Bridge in San Diego. Specifically, Chicano Park is in the barrio of Logan Heights, one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Murals of indigenous warriors, farmworkers, activists and icons such as Frida Kahlo and Cesar Chavez are emblazoned on the freeway columns supporting the bridge leading to the affluent community of Coronado.

Gonzalez has spent her life and career trying to shrink the distance between the people of her roots and the people who live on the “right side” of the Coronado Bridge. “If you look at the murals at Chicano Park, it’s a good indication of where I come from,” she said Tuesday.

Similar sentiments have been espoused by Latino activists for decades in California. The difference now is that Gonzalez is part of a generation of legislators turning those sentiments into political muscle.

Gonzalez’s bill would not be on Brown’s desk today if another Mexican American product of Logan Heights hadn’t intervened. Kevin de León, the leader of the state Senate, agreed to take on AB 1066 after another version of that bill was killed in late May. De León is the son of a former San Diego housekeeper. He used to ride the bus to Coronado with his mother, where he would wait for her as she cleaned the homes of her wealthy employers.

It was de León who cajoled his caucus into passing 1066 by one vote on Aug. 22. Still, the Assembly needed 41 votes to pass 1066. In May, the Assembly only had mustered 38 votes for farmworker overtime. That previous defeat seemed to shock progressive Democrats, who were disturbed that farmworker overtime went down because several Democrats either voted no or abstained.

So an intense lobbying effort took hold. On the federal level, Tom Vilsack, U.S. secretary of agriculture, called Democrats to emphasize that farmworker overtime was an issue steeped in basic human rights and dignity for workers. On the state level, Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom called members. So did Attorney General Kamala Harris, former Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa, U.S. Senate candidate Loretta Sanchez and state Treasurer John Chiang.

On the local level, county Supervisor Phil Serna was vocal and present – and not above calling people out on social media. Over the weekend, Serna challenged Assemblyman Ken Cooley, D-Rancho Cordova, to change his vote from no to yes.

Cooley wouldn’t, but there were still 44 votes to pass 1066 on Monday – three more than what was needed.

The arguments against farmworker overtime amount to little more than overheated rhetoric. State Republicans have tried to assert that farmworkers really don’t want overtime pay, and that fairly compensating workers earning an average of $20,000 a year would somehow destroy the state economy.

At times it was pure comedy to watch. “I know these people a lot better than you!” said Assemblyman James Gallagher, R-Yuba City, nearly shouting during the debate before Monday’s vote. “When I’m on this floor, I speak for farmworkers!”

Assemblyman Devon Mathis, R-Tulare, said: “We went down the fields and asked farmworkers” what they wanted. Mathis then proceeded to explain that the workers he visited opposed farmworker overtime. This was after the workers were told they would undoubtedly lose money if overtime pay was approved.

He actually said this with a straight face. Let me see if I understand you correctly, Mr. Mathis. You went to the fields and posed this scenario to workers: If overtime is passed, you will lose money. What did you think they were going to say?

Assemblywoman Shannon Grove, R-Bakersfield, tried to emphasize that actors, firefighters and ski-resort workers don’t have overtime either – so why should farmworkers?

Yes, because the conditions of farmworkers and firefighters are truly analogous. Good Lord. Ever wonder why the Republican Party is increasingly cut off from a growing Latino voter base and without a single statewide elected member?

Meanwhile, all eyes now to turn to Brown – who is entirely unpredictable. Brown has shown a tendency to worry about business interests, and at more than $50 billion in annual revenues, agriculture is among the most influential in California.

Brown is also within sight of his final days as an elected official. He established unprecedented rights for farmworkers during his first stint as governor in the 1970s. Would he really deny farmworkers the right basic right of overtime pay, especially with a bill that allows future governors to suspend that right should the economy go south?

He has until the end of September to make up his mind. “I’m not going to celebrate until the governor signs the bills,” Gonzalez said on Tuesday.

The hard work is far from over.

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