Dan Morain

Brown hands out a plum and dims his legacy

Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, talks with fellow legislators in April 2014.
Sen. Isadore Hall, D-Compton, talks with fellow legislators in April 2014. AP

Isadore Hall III is no William B. Gould IV, and the workers who harvest California’s crops will be worse off for it.

Gould, a Stanford Law School professor-emeritus, is one of those rare individuals who spans the gap between high-level scholarship and real-world understanding of the plight of workers.

During Bill Clinton’s presidency, Gould was chairman of the National Labor Relations Board. During President Lyndon Johnson’s years, he worked in the South for the Equal Employment Opportunity Commission.

His grasp of the nature of labor and need for worker dignity comes in no small measure by way of the great-grandfather he never met. The first William B. Gould was an escaped slave who enlisted in the U.S. Navy and helped to blockade the South during the Civil War. Abolitionists purchased his great-grandmother out of slavery for $1,000, a huge sum at the time. The professor told his ancestor’s story in “Diary of a Contraband: The Civil War Passage of a Black Sailor,” one of 10 books he has published.

Gould is exactly the sort of person Gov. Jerry Brown would want to serve on the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which he created when he was governor the first time. In the 1970s, the board was a vital part of the growth of the United Farm Workers and Cesar Chavez’s movement. By this decade, however, the board had become moribund, and the UFW is more a presence in Democratic politics than it is in the fields.

“My whole life is about labor law,” Gould, appointed board chairman in 2014, told me. “What I hoped to accomplish was to make the ALRB relevant again.”

In Gould’s assessment, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act “is a dream statute.” Wielded properly, it would provide important protections in union disputes and remedy deficiencies in the National Labor Relations Act, the Depression-era law that excludes farmworkers from its protections.

Last week, having concluded that the board had become irrelevant to farmworkers, Gould sent a letter informing the governor that he was stepping down. Not that the need for protection has passed.

The letter notes that farmworkers are “disproportionately plagued by homelessness, diabetes and lack of health insurance.” But the board goes long stretches without receiving any new cases. Union organizing is at most lackluster.

To invigorate the board, Gould had proposed sending interpreters into the fields to explain to workers their rights. Simply posting notices wouldn’t suffice. Many farmworkers are illiterate and not fluent in Spanish or English, and instead speak indigenous languages.

Understandably, farmers, never fond of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act or the board, would not welcome such an intrusion, and Gould’s proposal has stalled.

The letter, first reported by the Los Angeles Times, was not meant to be angry, and Gould certainly didn’t mean to offend the governor. Rather, he said by phone and later over coffee, he had become exasperated and frustrated, and the trip from Palo Alto to Sacramento, 3 1/2 hours by train, was taxing. At 80, he figured he could use his time better returning to writing articles and books, and lecturing.

Which leads to Isadore Hall. A former state senator and assemblyman from Compton, Hall ran for Congress and lost to fellow Democrat Rep. Nanette Barragán in November.

Politicians take care of their own. At 2 p.m. on Friday before a three-day weekend, Brown announced he nominated Hall to the board. The pay: $142,095. The Senate must confirm him. But that’s all but certain.

Hall is an affable and dapper guy, who can be seen on the patio at Chops on balmy evenings schmoozing and smoking cigars. As a legislator, Hall voted for the bill giving farmworkers overtime. The United Farm Workers endorsed him last year.

Exactly what he knows about agriculture is not clear, though in the Legislature, he was known for taking money from tobacco, a farm product, albeit not one grown in California. Marijuana is, however, homegrown, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board is trying to sort how, or whether, to get involved in mediating disputes in that business.

Drug legalization organizations ranked Hall’s voting record 100 percent positive, and he took $21,600 in his congressional campaign from executives of Weedmaps and their spouses; the startup intends to make bank on the marijuana commercialization.

I couldn’t help but wonder why Brown would hand a sweet plum to an out-of-work pol, especially for a board he created 40 years ago with such lofty aspirations. So I waited at the Capitol until I could catch up with him.

“He is a good man. He cares about people,” Brown said Wednesday, hustling from a Senate hearing into a side door leading to his office. “The ALRB is all about farmworkers and farmers, and I think his human touch and his experience in the world of Sacramento …” I couldn’t make out his final words as the governor’s door was closing.

Hall, who didn’t get back to me, undoubtedly will be a fitting addition to a board that doesn’t have much to do. I’d say the board has outlived its purpose. But it hasn’t. As Gould could attest, farmworkers, of all workers, need all the protection they can get.

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