Central Coast contingent lobbies lawmakers to change farmworker union elections.
Thursday, August 28, 2008
Osiris Salgado grabs an armful of red flags emblazoned with the black United Farm Workers eagle and hands them out to her North Monterey County High School classmates. The students have just arrived at the sunny state capitol, having boarded a UFW-chartered bus at about 6:30am in foggy Castroville. The group is one of seven busloads of Central Coast farmworkers and UFW supporters in Sacramento to mourn six farmworkers who died this year. The UFW says heat-related illness killed the six. Today, Aug. 18, the group will lobby legislators to pass a bill that would make it easier to unionize ag workers.
At the direction of North County High teacher Omar Mercado, the students, chaperones and farmworkers split up into teams before descending on the capitol. “This is so much fun!” Salgado says. As is the case with many of the teens, this is Salgado’s first lobbying trip.
The high school senior says her mom used to harvest tomatoes in Watsonville. “She told me about how she would come home with her feet all swollen,” Salgado says, dressed in black mourning clothes.
The first of this year’s farmworker deaths happened in May. Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teenager, died of heat stroke two days after collapsing in a vineyard near Stockton. “It would be really nice if contractors knew basic CPR if [farmworkers] pass out,” Salgado says.
The students meet in front of the white capitol steps and columns, and put on red UFW T-shirts. Farmworkers sit in the shade under a large white canopy– shade is something the UFW says ag companies don’t provide for workers even though it’s required by law.
The rally starts with boisterous chants of “¡Sí se puede!”. After a speech by Sen. Gil Cedillo (D-Los Angeles), the name of each victim is read and the farmworkers reply, shouting “¡Que viva!” Many in the crowd wear translucent rosary beads.
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez takes the podium and highlights the latest probable heat-related death. Maria de Jesus Alvarez, 63, died Aug. 2, more than two weeks after falling ill in a vineyard near the Salton Sea. Rodriguez says he attended Alvarez’s funeral with her nine children. “This is a disgrace what is happening with our people at this moment,” he says. “This is the center of grieving.”
Next, Rodriguez introduces Fabian Núñez (D-Los Angeles), speaker emeritus of the state Assembly. Núñez says the state doesn’t have the resources to enforce laws requiring that water and shade be provided in the fields. “There are laws,” Núñez says in Spanish. “They apply to someone, but they don’t apply to the farmworkers.”
Núñez is the author of Assembly Bill 2386, which would allow farmworkers to vote for union representation through a mediated mail election. Current law allows for voting only at ballot booths. UFW officials say the law would increase the number of unionized farmworkers, which currently make up less than 5 percent of state’s ag labor workforce. Unionized workers are more likely to speak up about lack of shade and demand heat-stroke prevention training without fear of losing their job, union officials say.
After the rally, North County High students pose for pictures with UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta. Sophomore Blanca Ayala says she wasn’t expecting to see famous people. She says she recently learned about Huerta in history class. “I basically just started learning about her and now I met her,” she says while walking to the capital’s entrance.
Outside Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s office, the crowd kneels around a priest who leads an elaborate prayer for the farmworkers who have died. California Highway Patrol Officers in khaki uniforms have to clear the edge of the halls to allow other people to pass. Staffers leaving the office wade through a sea of red shirts. The rosary ends with yells of “¡Viva la campesina! ¡Que viva!”
Salinas Valley Sen. Jeff Denham (R-Merced) lifts his microphone first. Denham questions whether organizers would be able to pressure workers into unionizing by repeatedly visiting to their home: “The union could come back a second time, a third time, or a fourth time until they return that ballot,” Denham says. He says the bill could open the door for collusion and encourages a “no” vote.
Steinberg says there have been 15 heat-related farmworker deaths since 2003. “It’s time to try something different,” he says.
As expected, the senators vote along party lines, approving the bill 23-15. Dems support the bill; Republicans don’t.
Following the vote, the local farmworker crowd cheers. “I think it’s good because I work in the fields in the summer,” says Efrain Martinez, a North County High senior. “It gets really hot. Lots of people don’t take the time to vote so they take the vote to their house.”
“¡Sí se puede!” turns to “¡Sí se pudo!” (Yes, we did!) Farmworkers from Greenfield give speeches in indigenous languages Triqui and Mixteco. Rafael Moreño, another North County High senior, looks on in awe.
“Now we get to tell our children we were there supporting,” Moreño says.
But AB 2386 still has hurdles to clear. While the Assembly is expected to approve the bill this week, Schwarzenegger looks likely to veto the legislation. Last year the governor vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to choose a union by using representation cards. This time around, supporters hope prayers from hundreds of farmworkers outside Schwarzenegger’s office will make a difference.