No gray area

Now that the governor has the farm worker bill, which side will he enrage?

United Farm Workers members and supporters descend on the Capitol last weekend.

United Farm Workers members and supporters descend on the Capitol last weekend.

Photo By Larry Dalton

After a week’s worth of super-charged rhetoric and political theater that led farm workers to the Capitol, Senate Bill 1736 on Monday was ceremoniously carried by its author to Governor Gray Davis’ office, where it now awaits his signature—or veto.

Growers and farm workers have both been doing their best to make the governor’s choice as stark as possible: either lay waste to the state’s largest industry during shaky economic times, or slap farm workers in a way that would have Cesar Chavez spinning in his grave.

United Farm Workers members and supporters held a 10-day march to Sacramento, gathering supporters and media attention along the way. Tracing deserted rural roads through vineyards and cornfields on the northern edge of San Joaquin County, the march last Thursday was in the tiny town of Thornton.

At noon, marchers plopped down in the shade of trees on the lawn in front of an elementary school. Students came out with cold drinks, and an old man in a white cowboy hat introduced a gaggle of shy young girls to movement superstar Dolores Huerta, who founded the UFW four decades ago with Chavez.

As a UFW nurse bandaged blisters, marchers expressed optimism about persuading Davis, although few Capitol insiders would give the bill any chance of avoiding a veto. Foremost among those skeptics is the bill’s author, Senate President John Burton, who wanted to force growers who stall union talks into binding arbitration.

While blisters were getting bandaged in Thornton, Davis was at the state fair unveiling an ad campaign promoting California agricultural products. Pressed on the farm worker bill, Davis kept his intentions quiet, but played up his support for farm workers: “All I want to say is that we owe a great debt of gratitude to the farm workers who put food on our table working under the most difficult circumstances on the planet. And we all ought to say a little prayer at night to thank them for the extraordinarily difficult work they do.”

A couple hours after Davis praised farm workers, Burton stood on the Capitol steps, where supportive legislators showed up at the daily UFW vigil to make a few quick speeches about the bill before getting in vans that were waiting to shuttle them out to join the march.

A Fresno Bee reporter with a tape recorder approached Burton and played the governor’s response to a question about the bill. Burton leaned over to hear the disembodied voice of Davis praise farm workers, clearly irritated by what he heard.

“So we should thank them and hail them,” Burton grumbled, “but not do anything for them?”

Burton even took on threatening tones: “It’ll be a mistake that will haunt him for the rest of his term, hurt his relationship with the Legislature and could even put a crimp in any national ambitions he may have. The choice is between the farm workers and the rich contributors and he seems to be leaning to the contributors.”

Days later, when the UFW march ended in a rally of 5,000 at the Capitol, Burton would return to Davis’ words, telling the crowd, “The governor in a speech out at the state fair said we owe a great debt to the farm workers for what they do. Well, he can repay that debt by signing this bill.”

Sitting with the other marchers on the grass in Thornton, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez munched on a couple of foil-wrapped veggie burritos donated by volunteers. The bill wouldn’t create a new law as much as it would put teeth in the old 1975 law, Rodriguez said, which is necessary because growers can stall negotiations for years.

“I don’t anticipate that it would be used that often, but it’s there as a mechanism to be implemented when somebody just ignores the law,” Rodriguez said. “It’s extremely important to us because we want to make sure that employers have a reason to bargain instead of having an incentive to delay the process. I think it really fulfills the promise of that law that was signed in 1975.”

As evidence of the growers’ bad faith bargaining, UFW spokesman Marc Grossman noted that after 428 successful votes to join the UFW, only 185 growers have signed contracts.

While not as high-profile as their opponents across the fields, growers have been aggressive in saying the bill would cripple the state’s $27 billion agriculture industry. The chief opponent is the Irvine-based Western Growers Association, which has blanketed newsrooms around the state with faxes promising dire consequences if the labor-business face-off doesn’t go their way.

“All the unions have to say is that the growers won’t negotiate in good faith, and then, boom, they’ve got a contract,” WGA spokeswoman Heather Flower said. “It means they can come with all kinds of outrageous demands and then say the growers aren’t bargaining. California growers produce about half of the nation’s fresh produce, and if you put our guys out of business, you would see a rise in prices for consumers.”

To publicly pressure the governor into signing the bill, UFW organizers started organizing the march up the valley as soon as the bill cleared the Legislature. Although Huerta, 72, nearly died two years ago from an abdominal aneurysm that hospitalized her for months and left her unable to eat, drink or walk, she walked every step of the 165-mile route.

“The lord saved me for this march,” she said along the way.

After enumerating instances in which farm workers who voted to unionize were left hanging by growers that stalled negotiations, the soft-spoken septuagenarian turned terse: “If the governor signs this bill, then Cesar’s dream of a union will finally be fulfilled. It’s what he worked all his life for, and what I worked all my life for. If the governor doesn’t sign this bill, he should never use Cesar’s name again. He knew Cesar, and when he ran for office, he used that to campaign, especially in the Latino community.”

Huerta said she’ll fast in his office if Davis doesn’t sign, continuing the public pressure that union supporters have already been dishing out. But Davis staffers seem to be quietly laying the groundwork to disappoint the activists who have besieged their boss. As thousands rallied at the Capitol, Davis spokesman Steve Maviglio wandered through the crowd, saying that the governor hasn’t made a decision yet. Maviglio has also been busy spinning his boss as a friend of farm workers who increased the minimum wage, expanded family leave and strengthened workplace safety laws.

Critics say the governor won’t sign the bill because of the campaign cash he’s taken from growers, but Davis spokesman Russ Lopez said it’s a silly charge “because labor is a big supporter of this bill and they’re one of his largest contributors.” Davis must decide by September 30.

Whatever he does, Davis can’t avoid alienating one of two important constituencies that he’ll need during this fall’s reelection campaign: either growers or the labor unions.

“This is the time,” UC Berkeley political science professor Bruce Cain said of the looming election, “when the liberal democrats have the maximum amount of influence with him, though they know that once Gray gets re-elected, he’ll go back to ignoring him again.

“At the same time, he doesn’t want to lose his ties to business and agriculture. It’s not just growers, it’s also the people who depend on growers, and his standing in the Central Valley, especially with swing voters. He’s been cultivating his relationship with growers and agriculture for several years. But he has a race to win, so he has to keep the liberals happy so they’ll turn out and rally the troops. It’s not an easy decision. Either way, he’s going to be having second thoughts. If he vetoes, he risks that Latinos will no-show at the polls. If he signs, agricultural business and centrists will say he ignored them.”

Cain predicted a veto.

As the long line of UFW supporters wound through the leafy streets of downtown Sacramento upon their arrival in town last weekend, the hundreds of marchers included riders on horseback carrying U.S. and Mexican flags and Aztec dancers in traditional garb. Motorcycle cops blocked intersections as stopped motorists beeped their horns in support.

Near the front was Paul Chavez, the sixth of Cesar Chavez’s eight children. Chavez, 45, runs the National Farm Workers Service Center, a nonprofit founded by Huerta and his father that provides affordable housing and job training for farm workers. He looks like his dad.

Chavez won’t come out and say it, but he seemed mad that the UFW can’t get a commitment out of Davis after supporting him back in the early in the days of the 1998 Democratic primary, when few thought Davis had a chance. “There was a strong bid by Al Checchi to court Latinos, and we were the first Latino group to come out in favor of Davis. During the campaign, we had people who were active all over the state.”

On the last few blocks of the march, striding down I Street toward Cesar Chavez Plaza, Chavez recalled Davis working with his dad in 1975. “If my father were still alive, he’d be here with us and he’d let the governor know that the right thing to do is pass this legislation.”

And if he doesn’t?

“We’ll keep the pressure on.”