State Legislature Takes Another Crack at Ending Institutional Racism in the Labor Code

Farm-Worker-BWBy Sean Raycraft

On June 29, 2016, dozens and dozens of people packed into room 2040 at the state capitol to listen to the State Senate Committee on Labor and Industrial Relations debate and vote on AB 1066, the newly resurrected farm worker overtime bill. The bill is a “gut and amend” version of AB 2757, a bill that over a period of 6 years would gradually phase in 8 hour day and 40 hour week overtime protections for farm workers. The bill also has provisions that allow the governor to arrest the progression, if certain economic conditions occur, like a recession. In that way, it is very similar to SB 3, the $15 an hour minimum wage bill. There were so many people in that room, there was hardly any room to stand, so the term “standing room only” doesn’t really give justice to the crowd size. The authors Joaquin Arambula (Democrat, Fresno) and Lorena Gonzalez (Democrat San Diego) spoke at length about the need to extend 8 hour, 40 hour work week overtime to farm workers. Gonzalez is a granddaughter of a Bracero, Arambula a son of farm workers. They both know the extraordinary difficulties that farm worker families face. Long hours, low pay, no overtime and broken, brown bodies. Arambula, who is an emergency room doctor by trade spoke to the committee about the health hazards of long hours of manual labor in the hundred degree heat. He spoke about the tragedies he has personally witnessed, where undocumented farm workers have died in his emergency room as a result of dehydration, heat stroke and exhaustion. These are avoidable tragedies. It was quite the speech to witness.

In contrast, Republican Jeff Stone of Temecula struck a different tone. He complained that as a farmer, the heat this year has killed 20 percent of his grape crop. He spoke about globalization, foreign competition, carrots, blueberries, the widening of the Panama Canal and Chile. The Senator talked about increased costs and even brought out the dreaded “job killer” label so popular in political circles. He also had the audacity to complain about how legislative staffers at the Capitol don’t have the luxury of overtime protections. Lorena Gonzalez rebutted those remarks by pointing out the inherent hypocrisy of comparing legislative staffers, who wear comfortable clothes, work in air conditioning and expensive shoes to those workers who are out picking grapes in the very heat that is killing the good State Senator’s grapes. She pointed out that when the air conditioning at the capitol is broken, the legislature adjourns “out of concern for the health and welfare of the staff and legislators”. Farm workers are not afforded such favorable working conditions.

The line of supporters was out the door. Representatives from organized labor, social justice groups, the ACLU, the United Farm Workers, actual farm workers and rank and file citizens spoke about how this injustice has gone on too long, and now is the time for change. My new friend Alejandro Cortez Venegas said “Good morning chairman and members, my name is Alejandro Cortez on the behalf the Mexican American Legal Defense and Education Fund, and we are in strong support. I would like to add by urging you members to do the right thing. By keeping overtime protections from Farmworkers is depriving them of basic human rights, and it’s inhumane. Caesar Chavez once said, “the fight is never about grapes or lettuce, it is always about people.” Therefore members, I urge to the right thing and support this bill.” For my part, when given the turn to speak I said “My name is Sean Raycraft, and I’m a grocery clerk. I have the luxury of 8 hour day overtime protections. As soon as that farm worker puts that produce on to a truck, every worker who touches that produce has overtime protections. The truck drivers, the warehouse workers and clerks like me all get overtime protections. I’m asking you committee members to extend those same protections to the workers who work outside in the hot sun. Thank you.”

The groups who came to the committee meeting were predictable. The Western Growers Association (who are responsible for sending Yolo county voters mailer after mailer during election season). The Chamber of Commerce, and various trade associations. Invariably, these lobbyists, wearing $5000 suits, nice shoes and luxury watches testified about their concern for their workers jobs and working conditions, and how “these burdensome regulations will put small farmers out of business” all without a hint of irony. They are the same talking points the big business community uses any time anyone proposes legislation that works for regular people. Lorena Gonzalez summed it up well when she said “This exemption in the labor code is effectively a giant subsidy for Big Ag, paid for by the sweat of immigrant labor.”

The bill ended up advancing to the state senate floor, on a party line 4-1 vote, with Vice Chair Stone in opposition. I reached out to local elected officials and candidates to get their thoughts on this matter.  Former assembly member and state senate candidate Mariko Yamada said “”The fundamental question is this: should the 1941 exemption from overtime for farmworkers be removed? I answered ‘Yes’ four years ago, when I voted for AB 1313 (Allen) on the Assembly Floor. Seventy-five years seems long enough for these workers to wait for equal treatment.” Assembly member Bill Dodd has not responded directly to multiple inquiries on this subject, but has made private comments to members of the labor community that he will vote no when this bill comes back to the assembly floor, citing cost increases for local dairy farms. Winters Mayor and Assembly District 4 candidate Cecilia Aguiar-Curry provided the following position statement when asked: “Its important that people understand the Ag sector. Farming demands unique requirements. I have concerns about redefining the current overtime provisions in the labor code on the heels of the new 15$ minimum wage requirement which phases in by 2020. I think it is prudent to take a go slow approach in order to assess the financial impacts on farmers and consumers before adding additional costs to production agriculture. I am open to changing the overtime rules in the future AFTER the effects of increased labor costs due to the new minimum wage are better understood.”

The state legislature will have an opportunity to right a historic wrong in the coming weeks. Northern California Democrat Assembly members Bill Dodd, Ken Cooley, and Jim Cooper, Evan Low, Jim Wood, Jim Frazier, and Susan Eggman are likely going to get a second chance. They all voted no on AB 2757 or failed to vote on the measure. It failed to advance, 38-35. 80 percent of farm workers are immigrants, and they are overwhelmingly from Central America. It would be negligent to ignore the institutional racism the overtime exemptions current labor law allows for. Today, it will be over 100 degrees again in the valley, and there will be thousands of farm workers laboring in that heat without the protections of an 8 hour day, or a seventh day of rest. I handle food every day at my job. It can be laborious and difficult, but it isn’t farm work, and I get those protections. It’s only fair that the state give those same protections to the people whose labor feeds the world. Lets hope our leaders have the moral courage to do what is right in the coming weeks and months to come. If not, lets remember who sides with working families in November.

Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident and proud shop steward at UFCW 8

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15 Comments

  1. Sam

     
    Manipulating the economy through laws and regulations can have a devastating effect. An extreme example right now is Venezuela. Hugo Chavez passed many laws to help “the people” and now “the people” can’t even buy food and other essential items. Ironically Hugo’s daughter is not starving due to the $4.2 billion USD in her foreign bank accounts. Just because something sounds good or noble does not make it a good idea in the long run.
     

  2. Justice4All

    Well, comparing Hugo Chavez and Venezuela to basic human dignity in the form of an 8 hour day for farm workers isnt exactly a fair comparison.

  3. South of Davis

    Sean wrote:

    > It would be negligent to ignore the institutional racism

    > the overtime exemptions current labor law allows for.

    Do you really think that all the Democrats and Republicans who are working to help the agribusiness firms who pay them bribes (aka “perfectly legal campaign contributions”) make more money are “racist” and laughing how the “institutional racism” they support is keeping the brown people down?

    It is a lot easier to debate the issues when we don’t have people calling everyone that they disagree with a “racist”.  I respect that Sean cares about others and it taking the time to fight for a cause he believes in but I would hope that he would wait to use the “racist” and “racism” words to call out the real racists and acts of racism (that sadly still exist).

    P.S. Most politicians (of both parties) don’t look at skin color and only look at the amount “green” they get.  I have no doubt that if the farm workers (or farm workers unions) gave more “green” to the politicians than the farm owners the politicians would vote differently…

    1. Justice4All

      I want to be clear SoD, you’re right. The color most politicians care about is green. Where we disagree (I think) is in definitions of terminology. When I say institutional racism, the definition I go by is that the laws are intentionally or unintentionally racist. Im not saying most of the law makers are racists, (some may be) rather that the exemption in overtime law itself is racist, because those who are exempted are almost universally people of color, and 80% immigrants.

      1. The Pugilist

        I think the question should be whether we would treat white farmworkers the same – and I think we would.  So while I support this legislation, I’m not convinced it’s racist as opposed to discriminatory against working people in general.

        1. South of Davis

          The Puligist wrote:

          > I’m not convinced it’s racist as opposed to

          > discriminatory against working people in general.

          The sooner the working class and small business people in America realize that the big government politicians (of both parties) are out to screw them to make their big business donors even richer the better.

          I’m happy to see that the working class in GB realized what was happening and took a step to fix it.  In rural Scotland and Ireland big companies have been buying up historic pubs over the last decade and firing the locals in favor of immigrants from Eastern Europe who will work for less money.

          The Scottish and Irish bartenders were not fired due to “racism”  they were fired because politically connected big companies don’t care about anything but the bottom line.

      2. South of Davis

        Sean wrote:

        > When I say institutional racism, the definition I go

        > by is that the laws are intentionally or unintentionally

        > racist. Im not saying most of the law makers are racists

        We still do have institutional racism in the US and it is a bad thing, but it is “intentional” racism (like when the guys running a bank intentionally only promote members of one religion and don’t lend in areas with races they don’t like)

        If a person making the law is not a racist and the law “unintentionally” effects mostly one race this is not “institutional racism”.

        When a lawmakers pass a law setting a requiring the load rating of the tire to match the car it is for safety reasons and it just “unintentionally” gets the mostly Latino guys who think tiny 13″ spoke wheels with skinny tires make a ’64 Impala look better.

        Just like lawmakers are not “racists” when the laws for safety reasons make it illegal to have giant 36″ mud tires sticking out on a 4×4 results in tickets going to 99% white guys.

  4. Sam

    Comparing a highly manipulated economy and its result to an article advocating additional market manipulation on the heals of a legislated labor rate increase isn’t a fair comparison? Is it not considered market manipulation because you use words like “dignity”, “protections” and “racism”? Does that somehow void the legislation from having an economic impact?

    1. Justice4All

      Sam, by that logic, there should be no labor laws whatsoever, lest they create market manipulations. This issue is about people, the workers, not esoteric arguments about the morality of the free market.

    2. Sam

      By that logic you should study what over regulation can do to an economy before advocating for it.

      Health can’t be privatized because it is a fundamental human right, nor can education, water, electricity and other public services. They can’t be surrendered to private capital that denies the people from their rights. -Hugo

      For Hugo it was all about the people too. Now those people are starving, lack adequate medical care, suffer from rolling blackouts and a lack of water.

       

      1. Justice4All

        Well, one could just as easily argue that Venezuela is suffering from an economy that is not diversified enough, and as a petrol state, is suffering the effects of historically low oil prices. For the most part, the Hugo Chavez regime did just fine while oil prices were high.

  5. Sam

    That would be a difficult argument to make. First off during Hugo’s regime there were periods of food shortages and other problems, even when oil was twice as high as it is today. Their economy not being diverse has been one of the problems, but how did it get that way?

    Like I said, study what has happened in the past when governments have tried to legislate an economy “for the people”.

  6. Tia Will

    the heat this year has killed 20 percent of his grape crop.”

    Better his crop than his laborers.

    I think it is prudent to take a go slow approach in order to assess the financial impacts on farmers and consumers before adding additional costs to production agriculture. I am open to changing the overtime rules in the future AFTER the effects of increased labor costs due to the new minimum wage are better understood.”

    This approach did not prove “prudent” for the 18 year old girl, a major support of her family through her farm labor, who died slowly from heat induced multiple organ failure in the ICU, nor for many of the lesser heat related illnesses and injuries that I treated during my timing working in the county hospital in Fresno. I suspect that Cecilia Aquiar might have a very different view of “prudence” if she spent some time trying to start IVs in people so dehydrated that a cut down is necessary for hydration or trying to urge back to functioning dying kidneys and livers.

  7. MAli

    Aguiar-Curry: “I think it is prudent to take a go slow approach in order to assess the financial impacts on farmers and consumers before adding additional costs to production agriculture.”

    What? The 75 years since this 1941 exemption was enacted hasn’t been long enough to evaluate its efficacy? Two years of Schaupp is looking better all the time.

     

  8. MAli

    Institutional racism and/or exploitation of immigrants in farm labor has been part of California agriculture from the earliest European settlement when St. Junipero Serra baptized and enslaved Indians all along the El Camino Real.

    Under U.S. statehood,  since the early days of the Bonanza Wheat Farms after the Civil War, California agriculture depended on wave after wave of immigrants, Japanese, Chinese, Korean, Filipino and Mexican (both legal Bracero’s and undocumented) have been used in a never ending succession of cheap laborers that even included the white dust bowl Okie refugees immortalized in the Grapes of Wrath by Steinbeck. These groups were regularly pitted against one another to keep them from organizing. One of Ceasar Chavez’s great successes was getting Filipino and Mexican farm workers to unite for better wages and working conditions. Denying the existence of race, class and immigration status as important economic and cultural barriers that have been exploited for centuries in California agriculture shows either a willful ignorance of our state’s history if its done with a wink and a nod to the landowner class, as some leaders cited in this article seem to do,  or just plain ignorance if people don’t know enough California history to know any better as some commenters seem to indicate.

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