Seventy years of exploitation: The enduring plight of California's farm workers

State lawmakers have killed a bill guaranteeing overtime pay, but a new labor movement is only just beginning

Published June 18, 2016 2:00PM (EDT)

This article originally appeared on Capital & Maint.

For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.

Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another—Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico—to provide the labor that made the land productive.

Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute—strikes were broken and unions were kept out.

The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.

That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.

On June 2 the State Assembly failed to pass AB2757, a bill that would give farm workers the same overtime pay that workers in urban areas have had since the 1930s. In the outcome, echoes can still be heard of those old rules. But the vote also makes clear that past certainties are certain no longer.

Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established the nation’s first overtime pay requirement—time and a half after forty hours in a week. In the debate, Congress members from the South, heavily dependent on Black workers in cotton and tobacco, opposed making the law apply to farm labor.

Representative J. Mark Wilcox of Florida openly justified this exclusion: “Then there is another matter of great importance in the South, and that is the problem of our Negro labor,” he declared. “There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor… You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it. Not only would such a situation result in grave social and racial conflicts but it would also result in throwing the Negro out of employment and in making him a public charge.”

The enslavement of African Americans set a pattern of inequality that lasted long after slavery itself was abolished, and the pattern was then applied to other people of color. While the descendants of slaves worked without overtime pay on the farms of the South, immigrants from Mexico and Asia faced the same exclusion in the West.

The rise of California’s farm worker movement began to change the power equation in the 1960s, however, forcing some growers to agree to union contracts, an unprecedented step. Yet even when the legislature debated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the nation’s first law guaranteeing union rights for farm workers, the votes in favor came from urban Democrats, while rural Republicans maintained a solid front against it.

Nevertheless, the farm workers movement sparked a sea change in the politics of rural California. Growers did not lose their power, but even in rural communities that power was no longer uncontested.

In 1975, the year the ALRA was passed, Democrats in the legislature also passed the first proposal to give farm workers overtime pay. But it was still a standard below that of other workers — time and a half after ten hours in a day instead of eight, and 60 hours a week instead of 40. Growers have to pay overtime on the seventh day of work, but only if none of the previous workdays are less than six hours. In practice, few California farm workers today get overtime pay.

Through the 1980s and ’90s, when Republicans held the governorship and a majority in the legislature, changing that overtime rule was not in the cards. Even when Democrats regained their legislative majority and passed a bill to restore the 8-hour day to most California workers in 1999, farm workers were still excepted. Finally, in 2010, Democrats passed SB 1121 to remove the exception for farm workers in the 8-hour overtime standard. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.

In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said the 8-hour day and 40-hour week would “not improve the lives of California’s agricultural workers and instead will result in additional burdens on California’s businesses, increased unemployment and lower wages.” He used the argument put forward by grower groups in every overtime battle, predicting that “multiple crews will be hired to work shorter shifts, resulting in lower take-home pay for all workers. Businesses trying to compete under the new wage rules may become unprofitable and go out of business.”

In 2012 Assemblymember Michael Allen introduced a similar bill sponsored by the United Farm Workers. It passed the Senate, but this time it failed in the State Assembly. Fractures in the Assembly Democratic Caucus surprised even the state horse breeders association, part of the grower opposition to the bill. It listed five Democrats “all of whom voted ‘no.’ (Amazing!),” including urban liberals like Joan Buchanan, Fiona Ma and Toni Atkins, as well as others, like Susan Bonilla, who skipped the vote.

“Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible reasons why farm workers have been excluded for 74 years,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez commented bitterly at the time. “Often people ask us why? As should now be apparent, Democrats are just as vulnerable to big money as Republicans are.”

In the years since the 1965 grape strike, however, a rising number of Democrats have been elected from rural districts where agricultural interests still wield economic power. Pressure from growers in these districts to vote against farm worker legislation is predictably high. But the 2012 vote revealed that the commitment to farm worker protections had weakened among urban liberal Democrats, where resistance to growers had been historically stronger.

When the vote on AB 2757 was taken on June 2, that trend was even more pronounced. The bill needed 41 votes to pass—a majority of the Assembly—and it received 38. Fourteen Democrats either voted ‘no,’ or were “not present,” which in effect counted as a no vote, since it denied the bill the majority it needed.

‘No’ votes included Ken Cooley (District 8-Rancho Cordova), Jim Cooper (9-Elk Grove), Bill Dodd (4-Woodland), Jim Frazier (11-Fairfield), Adam Gray (21-Merced), Mark Levine (10-San Rafael), Evan Low (28-Cupertino) and Bill Quirk (20-Hayward). ‘Not present’ were Richard Bloom (50 – Santa Monica), Tom Daly (69-Anaheim), Susan Eggman (13-Stockton), Jacqui Irwin (44-Oxnard), Adrin Nazarian (46-Van Nuys) and Jim Wood (2-Ukiah).

Calls placed to urban Democrats, who had little to lose in supporting the bill yet failed to do so (including Levine, Low, Quirk, Bloom, Daly and Nazarian) were not returned. The justification for their votes is unknown.

But the 38 Democratic votes that the bill did receive show that demographic change is working in favor of farm workers in the long term. Giev Kashkooli, legislative director for the United Farm Workers, notes that “Democrats from rural areas all voted ‘yes’ this time. All African-American Assemblymembers but one voted yes, and all Asian Pacific Islander members but one voted ‘yes’ too.”

Perhaps the biggest change is that among Democrats, especially rural Democrats, are several legislators who come from families of farm workers themselves. They include Joaquin Arambula (31-Fresno), Rudy Salas (32-Delano), Luis Alejo (30-Watsonville) and Eduardo Garcia (56-Coachella/Imperial Valley). AB 2757 itself was written by Lorena Gonzalez (80-San Diego), whose grandfather was a bracero farm worker, and cosponsored by Rob Bonta (18-Alameda), who grew up at the UFW headquarters in La Paz, where his parents were union staff.

In other words, less dependable liberal white support in urban areas has been offset by a growing demographic shift, not just in color and nationality, but also in terms of family history and experience in farm worker communities themselves.

The Republican Assembly Caucus was united in opposition to AB 2757. The Caucus includes not only conservatives from the upper-middle-class suburbs at the urban fringes of the state’s metropolitan areas, but also, as always, representation of growers themselves. Assemblyman Brian Dahle (1-Redding) told the Assembly, “If I could pick my dirt up and leave, I would. My dream is to leave a flourishing farm to my children. You stand in the way of allowing my children to continue their great-grandfather’s aspirations.”

Devon Mathis (26-Visalia) told the Visalia Times, “They [farm workers] get paid quite well. In our area, they get paid more than minimum wage.”

Gonzalez and Bonta crafted a bill designed to ease the impact on growers.

It would gradually phase in standards by lowering the current 10-hour day to the standard 8-hour day by annual half-hour increments for four years. The 40-hour workweek would be achieved by lowering the 60-hour week in 5-hour steps. Smaller farms would get two extra years to meet the requirement.

Determining the bill’s impact on growers is not easy, since no direct statistics are collected on how many hours of labor farm workers put in over 8 in a day or 40 in a week. Nevertheless, some idea of the stakes is clear. Farm worker payroll in California is more than $6 billion per year, but it makes up just over 10 percent of the $56 billion in growers’ annual receipts.

The median annual income for farm workers is only $14,000.

Pedro Agustin, one of the 450 farm workers who took time off to come to Sacramento to lobby in the two days before the vote, said he earned an average of $12,500 a year. “It isn’t fair that field workers are excluded from receiving this benefit,” he told legislators, “when other workers who work under a roof and some with air conditioners are getting paid overtime after 8 hours per day or after 40 hours per week. We work in very high temperatures and harvest food that everyone eats. What we want is for all of us to be treated the same.”

Growers didn’t argue that they couldn’t pay, but claimed the bill would harm workers. According to AgAlert, the weekly newspaper of the California Farm Bureau Federation, “the higher cost of providing overtime pay—particularly when coupled with scheduled increases in the state minimum wage—would force farmers to reduce employee work hours to control labor costs.” Federation President Paul Wenger predicted that it would cut farm worker income by a third. Growers, he said, would actually hire two shifts of workers, where currently one crew of workers labors throughout the day.

Kashkooli laughed at the idea. “These are the same growers who are telling Congress that they need guest workers, since they face a labor shortage. They don’t have a lot of credibility. Even if their costs would go up, why is it farm workers who always have to take the economic hit? The truth is that we’ve had 78 years of racism, and this distinction was wrong then, and it’s wrong now.”

Bonta says the bill was well designed, taking business needs into account. “But we have to face the fact that racism was a factor when this different standard was established,” he emphasizes. “A status quo inertia based on discrimination and exclusion isn’t an okay reason for carrying it forward today.”

Since the bill only failed by three votes in the Assembly, Bonta, Gonzalez and the UFW plan to bring it back. “AB 2757 is the third attempt in recent years to provide overtime after an 8-hour day, but it won’t be the last,” Gonzalez predicted. ”We’re going to get this done for the 400,000 Californians who deserve the dignity of an 8-hour day.”

By David Bacon

David Bacon is an associate editor of Pacific News Service who writes on immigrant and labor issues.

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