Click here to go to the Home Page What’s Happening to the "Least Among Us?" - Solidarity America - By John Funiciello - Columnist

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Some people in America have virtually no influence at any level of our society or government and the plight of farm workers makes the complaints of the middle class about economic and political privation look like a walk in the park.

BC Question: What will it take to bring Obama home?There was a time in this country when the attempts by the working class to enjoy some of the fruits of the nation’s well-endowed economy were in the news every day. There were the civil rights movements of the 1960s, and earlier, that spurred efforts to gain equal rights to the descendants of slaves. Those efforts included the union organizing movements of the 1930s and 1940s.

Because of those movements and their successes to move the nation ahead, the men, women, and children who worked bent over in the fields all day, every day, thought they might be in line for the same kind of societal benefits. By then, a growing majority of the field workers in the states where most of the food in the U.S. comes from were Mexican, Mexican-American, or other immigrants.

When the United Farm Workers union won its first contract in 1966, many of the workers thought their exploitation as workers was coming to an end. The UFW was successful in organizing. UFW’s Cesar Chavez and Delores Huerta had the ear of sympathetic politicians at the state and national level. There were even politicians who believed that justice in the fields was long overdue and newspapers and television news programs often featured a particular struggle of the migrant workers.

In California, the first agricultural labor act was passed and it was believed that the field would be leveled to a degree, so that the unions representing farm workers would be able to deal with growers at the bargaining table and union members would gain the rights enjoyed by other unionized workers. The resolve and the power of the growers and the politicians who did their bidding were underestimated.

When the organizing slowed and the growers and their thugs in the field and in the legislative halls got out the brass knuckles and injunctions, unionization in the fields slowed and, in fact, the membership of the UFW shrank. The union, under the leadership of Arturo Rodriguez, who worked closely with his father-in-law, Cesar Chavez, continued to fight back, trying to make it easier for field workers to organize and protect both their own health and the livelihoods of their families and communities.

They encouraged passage of legislation in California that would make it easier for workers to organize. It was the same “card check” form of organizing that is represented in the language of the Employee Free Choice Act (EFCA) at the national level that has had the Republicans and others on the right in hysterics. As a result of that hysteria, EFCA hasn’t gone anywhere.

While U.S. employers have used every trick in the book to defeat union organizing in other parts of American society, the situation for farm workers is much more dire. Violence has been an important tactic of the growers and the history of that tactic remains in the minds of the workers, many of whom are women. The threat of it has kept hundreds of thousands of farm workers in line. And, it has kept them from voting for a union, even in secret ballot elections on the farm.

That’s why card check is so important to determine whether farm workers want a union. Under such a law, the usual intimidation by the growers would have been minimized and the workers could express themselves freely through their vote without fear of physical harm or fear of losing their jobs. The law that Governor Jerry Brown vetoed last month would have been a vital move for farm workers, in the direction of full participation in America’s economic life.

Rodriguez and the UFW had enough strength to have the same card-check legislation moved to the governor’s desk four times in the past four years. And, four times Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it. Each time, the Democratic-controlled California Legislature passed the legislation to the governor. This time, though, the legislature sent it to a governor of their own party, a governor who supported the UFW and farm workers, in general, and who in the past spoke of his relationship with, and support for, Cesar Chavez.

The power of the right wing in America cannot be overestimated as some of the more extreme right-wingers in the country are to be found in the California Legislature and congressional delegation. Even when they are in the minority, the GOP’s power is proven to a large extent by Brown’s veto. Why would he veto a bill that would give a minimal amount of power to workers who have none? It is the power of money, whether in California or in the country at large. Corporate America is laden with money that it can, and does, spend to defeat anything that smacks of power to the people or, especially, power to workers.

Brown has said that he will seek to make life easier for farm workers by working within the existing law, but that law has been so often a useless tool that Chavez once said, only half joking, that it seemed the only thing to do would be to scrap the law and start over.

The growers’ power over the workers, whatever the state, is illustrated in the short statement of one of the women field workers:

Before I worked under a UFW contract, I worked picking raspberries. The problem is that I was hired under one condition, that I would be trained for one week without pay. My husband, who started working the same day I did, on the other hand did get paid. I am very excited to go to Sacramento because I support SB104, so other workers don't have to work for free like I did.

How many other workers, in every field in California or any other state, have worked for free? This statement was from Petra Soto, an Oxnard, Cal.-area union strawberry worker, but it could have come from any one of thousands of workers who not only work bent over in the hot sun for 10 hours a day, but know that they could be fired at any time, if they asked for water too often or took more toilet breaks than the boss thought was necessary. What other indignities have they had to withstand? The list is long.

The bill that Brown vetoed was called the “Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act.” How long will it take for farm workers to get fair treatment in the fields? There’s no telling.

For something as important as food for the nation (and the farm workers provide most of it, whatever kind of work they do and wherever they work), there is little interest in their treatment by the people who eat all of that food. Part of it is because there is little to no news coverage of any of the farm workers’ issues. Part of it is that the people who are trying to achieve decent pay, benefits, and working conditions for farm workers are trying to do it through legislation, which is designed to make agribusiness more humane. In reality, the only ones who can achieve justice for farm workers are farm workers, in the strength expressed through solidarity and their own union.

That’s why it is such a travesty that SB 104 was vetoed, even though the growers and their friends in Corporate America whined that the law would “give the workers too much power.” Welcome to Wonderland! Columnist, John Funiciello, is a labor organizer and former union organizer. His union work started when he became a local president of The Newspaper Guild in the early 1970s. He was a reporter for 14 years for newspapers in New York State. In addition to labor work, he is organizing family farmers as they struggle to stay on the land under enormous pressure from factory food producers and land developers. Click here to contact Mr. Funiciello.

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July 7, 2011 - Issue 434
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