No workers are more in
need of union protection than the nation's miserably treated farm workers. Yet a promising new effort to ease their path
to unionization has been blocked by one of their former champions, Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown of California, the nation's
leading farm state.
Brown was rightly hailed for signing, in an earlier
term as governor, the 1975 law that granted farm workers in California the collective bargaining rights denied them nationwide.
It's the weapon farm workers must have if they are to escape poverty and the arbitrary and often harmful actions of grower
But now, Brown has vetoed a bill sponsored by the United Farm
Workers union, the UFW, that would have made it much easier for farm workers to unionize. Currently, they can be granted bargaining
rights only if a majority working for a particular grower votes for unionization. The vetoed measure, the so-called Card-Check
Bill, would have granted bargaining rights simply on the showing of union membership cards or petitions for union recognition
signed by a majority of workers.
Farm workers, of course, are among our
most important workers. They help feed us, after all. Their pay nevertheless averages less than $10,000 a year, and most lack
employer-paid health care and other benefits. They work hard, frequently under the blazing sun, with few –
if any – rest breaks and without even such simple on-the-job amenities as fresh drinking water and toilets.
The UFW, which sponsored California's 1975 law, has been trying for many years to
remedy farm workers' conditions by leading them in drives aimed at winning union contracts that promise them decent treatment
and an effective voice in determining their wages, hours and working conditions.
It's not been easy for the UFW, even with the law in effect. Thanks mainly to employer intimidation
and high worker turnover, the union has been able to sign up only a small part of California's farm labor force and to
win only a relatively few contracts from growers. But it's an important start. Without the law, it would have been nearly
So why in the world did self-proclaimed farm worker advocate
Jerry Brown veto the bill that would have strengthened the union rights granted farm workers in the bill he signed 36 years
Well, Brown didn't say much, but did say he didn't like
the bill because it called for "drastic change." Which it did, of course. That, as Brown must
know, is exactly what's needed.
Requiring union rights to be granted
only by elections gives growers a great opportunity to unfairly pressure workers into voting against unionization –
and many take full advantage of the opportunity.
It’s common for growers
faced with elections to require workers to attend meetings at which they rail against unions, threaten to fire union supporters
and warn that they might have to go out of business if their farms are unionized, or at least greatly curtail operations and
thus job opportunities.
"You're talking about voting on the employer's
site, with foremen and supervisors making eye-contact with you after they've alluded to or flat out threatened you with
the loss of your job or your housing," notes a UFW vice president, Armando Elenes. "It takes a lot of strength to
There's plenty of evidence that employers do indeed
put lots of pressure on workers to vote against unionization. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez notes, for example, instances
of growers pulling guns on workers who were trying to organize. That may seem exaggerated – but not
to anyone who's experienced the superheated grower-worker confrontation up close.
The UFW is not giving up the struggle for Card-Check recognition. The union will soon re-introduce the Card-Check
bill in Congress with the strong backing of the nation's labor leaders. Some of them call it the single most important
labor bill in the country this year.
It certainly is for farm workers and
should be for workers in other industries throughout the country who also seek Card-Check rights, and for anyone who wants
decent treatment for those whose vital work helps put food on our tables.
© 2011 Dick Meister