Viewpoints: Gov. Brown says no to labor

Occasionally, a bill sitting on the governor’s desk offers a window into the inner workings of California politics. And like the old guise about sausage-making, studying the product’s constitution isn’t a pretty picture.

The bill in question: Senate Bill 25. Vetoed late last weekend by Gov. Jerry Brown, it would have placed California farmworkers under the state’s mandatory mediation and conciliation law. The significance: the veto denied the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board the power to dictate wages and other contract terms for farmworkers – whether they or their employers like it or not.

By my count, SB 25 tells us at least four things about the state of the Golden State.

First, what fun it is trying to predict Brown’s bill-signing decisions. Though some Republicans would have you believe this governor is just another liberal loon, many of his September actions speak otherwise. This year, for example, he literally nipped the nanny state in the bud by rejecting a measure to require diaper-changing tables available to men. With the SB 25 veto, he’s saying no to the union bosses – no casual feat for a Democrat in an election year.

The second telling sign: the scant mainstream media interest in both the bill and a drama playing out about three hours south of California’s capital at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming. Last November, a majority of Gerawan’s workers voted to leave the United Farm Workers, only to have their vote ignored by the labor relations board, which is also enforcing a UFW contract that requires those same farmworkers to kick back 3 percent of their salary to the union. The lack of media interest suggests that the unseemly relationship between unions and state government has become too de rigueur in California politics.

Third, let’s not overlook the Republican blind spot in this saga. In 2014, national Republicans have descended upon the drought-stricken Central Valley to decry a federal water policy that seemingly favors fish over farmers. Meanwhile, gubernatorial nominee Neel Kashkari camped out on the streets of Fresno to decry poverty and unemployment. Yet, no bright Republican mind put two and two together and theorized that perhaps by siding with farmworkers being muscled by a union and a state agency, it could help rehabilitate the party’s brand with Latino voters.

Fourth, and finally: The farmworkers themselves. They have jobs. What they don’t have is a political champion. Cesar Chavez died 21 years ago. Brown, who helped carry Chavez’s casket, was arguably the farmworkers’ best friend this side of Robert Kennedy in his first go-round as governor. It was Brown who signed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act back in 1975. Brown, version 2.0, is a different matter. He vetoed a farmworker-organizing bill that Arnold Schwarzenegger likewise vetoed four times. Perhaps, as Brown mulled over SB 25, he rediscovered his political roots.

Getting back to Schwarzenegger for a moment, the recent portrait unveiling at the Capitol brought to mind deeds and missed opportunists. To his credit, Schwarzenegger ventured into areas other Republicans blithely dismiss regardless of the political consequences (climate change, health care reform). But sadly, the first-generation immigrant and his now-estranged wife, the niece of the sainted RFK, didn’t lend their time and their muscle to elevating the cause of California’s farmworkers.

Perhaps Brown will check into the workers at Gerawan during his final term. Or perhaps someone who covets his job will. Lt. Gov. Gavin Newsom reportedly idolizes RFK and is always looking for new avenues to explore. Besides, he could benefit from some time in the Central Valley to balance his big-city persona.

Meanwhile, let’s celebrate a prominent Democrat saying no to a union power play. Common-sense governing? Si se puede.