Capitol Alert

Tom Steyer on farm labor conditions and his summer picking fruit

Standing alongside farm labor organizers for the second time in six weeks, Tom Steyer, the billionaire environmentalist, said Wednesday it was “common sense” for his organization, NextGen Climate, to pay for water jugs for field workers amid this summer’s scorching heat.

If it was also good politics, Steyer would only say so in the broadest, non-gubernatorial terms.

“When Mexican immigrants are being explicitly targeted in a racist way by somebody running for president,” said Steyer, a potential candidate for governor, “I think it’s really especially important this year to recognize how hard they work under what difficult conditions and to remember that they are contributing to society in an extremely positive and measurable way.”

Steyer’s remarks followed a news conference with Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, where Steyer endorsed a bill to extend overtime pay protections to farm workers and sought to “raise the alarm about the extreme heat, partly due to climate change.”

NextGen has spent about $30,000 producing 3,000 red Coleman water jugs with information about worker rights printed on the side.

Following the news conference, Steyer, a former hedge fund manager and major Democratic donor, said farm labor conditions have been a longstanding concern of his.

“I don’t want to seem as if I understand how hard this job is,” said Steyer, who addressed a UFW convention last month. “But I did spend one summer when I was in college picking fruit in Oregon with overwhelmingly immigrant co-workers, and I knew from that summer how some of the rules work in the field.”

He said, “I knew right then, and I was 20 years old, that there was something about this system that was not quite square.”

Asked if he might also be seeking to strengthen his relationship with the UFW in preparation for a gubernatorial campaign, Steyer said “I am doing this because this absolutely appeals to my most basic sense of humanity and decency, period.”

Steyer, whose pedigree includes Phillips Exeter Academy, Yale University and the Stanford Graduate School of Business, said that in addition to picking cherries in college, he worked other summers as a cowhand and operating a forklift.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders