By Sean Raycraft
Yesterday, I fasted for 24 hours with at least a hundred others in solidarity with farm workers in the state of California. Many prominent members of the community did the same, including my new friends Connor Gorman of UAW 2865 and a recent UCD graduate Rebecca Senteny. Several lawmakers also participated in the fast, including Lorena Gonzalez, the author of AB 1066, a bill that would extend 8 hours a day, and 40 hours a week overtime protections over several years. County Supervisor Don Saylor and former Assemblymember and State Senate candidate Mariko Yamada participated in the fast, in solidarity with farm workers in their struggle for fair treatment under the law.
While Mariko Yamada was fasting in solidarity with farm workers, her rival for the State Senate, Bill Dodd, was hosting a fundraiser in Davis at the Odd Fellows Hall, at $250 a plate minimum. I think that sums up what we can expect from those two candidates when they go to Sacramento. Farm workers in the state of California only get overtime after 10 hours in a work day, or after 60 hours in a work week. They can work 7 days a week and will not get time and a half.
I have never actually fasted for any length of time. Originally, I wanted to write this article yesterday, and attempted to do so. What I found was that, due to my hunger late at night, I could not adequately concentrate. During this state, I could not help but to wonder how the hungry children in our city are supposed to concentrate in school when they are hungry through no fault of their own.
So what could motivate me and so many others to deprive themselves of food for 24 hours by choice? For me, it was the meeting between farm worker advocates (and actual farm workers) and Assemblymember Ken Cooley last Thursday afternoon. As part of a coordinated statewide effort, farm worker advocates have been pressuring Democratic lawmakers to change their votes on farm worker overtime issues.
On June 2, many Assembly Democrats voted no on AB 2757 or failed to vote on the measure. The bill failed 38-35, with seven absent, abstaining or not voting (41 votes are needed to advance the bill). Sacramento area Assembly Democrats Dodd, Cooley and Cooper all voted no on 2757. That meeting with Ken Cooley included Carlos Alcala, Chair of the California Latino Caucus, Norma Alcala, Vice-Chair region 2 of the California Latino Caucus, and Jesse Ortiz, the Superintendent Schools of Yolo County.
Dozens of others packed the small conference room – farm workers, organized labor leaders and social justice activists. All of us were there to discuss one issue; to ask Mr. Cooley to change his vote when the bill comes back to the Assembly.
Farm workers told their stories about how difficult the work is, and how long the hours are. I told Mr. Cooley about how unfair it is that every worker in the food production chain gets overtime protections except for the people who do the hardest work, outside in the fields. Superintendent Ortiz talked at length about the impacts of poverty in Yolo County, and how the children of the poor are often hit the hardest. Carlos Alcala spoke passionately at length about the long wait for farm workers for justice. He said that farm workers were excluded from the Fair Labor Standards act of 1938 so that President Roosevelt could get the votes of racist white southern Democrats. Those racist southern Democrats did not want Blacks and Latinos to get these overtime protections he added. Seventy-eight years is long enough to wait, he exclaimed. The exemption is a relic of institutional racism that ought to end here in California, he said.
But what was Mr. Cooley’s response to all these entreaties? He endeavored to be polite in his obstinate refusal to change his mind on the matter. When asked to justify his position, he laid out a reasoning that left the room agape with a combination of shock and anger. I’ll be paraphrasing here, but it comes down to this thesis: “If we give farm workers overtime, we will inevitably increase carbon emissions and thus worsen climate change.”
His logic being that if we were to make farming less profitable to farmers, they in turn would be more likely to sell their lands to developers, who would develop sprawl, which would increase commuter traffic, and thus greenhouse gas emissions. All incredulity aside, I find it ridiculous that, even if the Assemblymember actually believes this reasoning, he would be willing to do blame farm workers for climate change.
The message he has sent could not be clearer. The poor will continue to suffer the vanity of the rich. Instead of blaming the developers or the elected officials who approve any such sprawl, the Assemblymember would blame people who do the work that no one else wants to do, at poor wages outside, in the 100-degree heat.
He would blame those who are already disenfranchised by our government and society, simply for asking for equal treatment and fairness. He would blame the people whose labor produces food for the high prices of specialty food that they cannot afford.
I suppose it has nothing to do with the political clout of the agriculture industry and wine retailers or the fat checks they send to political action committees or in the form of campaign contributions. Clearly, the millionaires and their greed are blameless in the eyes of the political elite.
I have been told of similar incidents with many of moderate Democrats by those who advocate for farm workers. Here are some of the other talking points put forward by the agriculture industry which have been parroted by these Democrats. “If we give farm workers an 8 hour work day, the growers will just hire more farm workers.” It is well known there is a farm worker shortage in this country.
A simple Google search of “farm worker shortage” will net readers any number of articles from farmers complaining about the shortage. Where would those workers come from? “If we give farm workers overtime after 8 hours, we will just automate more work.”
Automation is not always a bad thing for laborious and dangerous work. “If we give farm workers overtime after 8 hours, prices of produce will increase.” That may be so, but I for one am willing to pay a little more for my food, so that the people who make said food do not go hungry.
So why fast in solidarity with farm workers? Seemingly, protest for those of conscience is the only remaining avenue to raise public awareness, and to pressure our elected officials to have the courage to be on the right side of history.
Our leaders, who are paid well, work in comfort and have all the benefits of power, are deciding to deny basic dignity to some of the hardest working people in our state, who work in the elements, live difficult lives, and happen to be almost universally Latino. Ironically, on Cesar Chavez day, almost every single legislator in the Assembly voted on a resolution honoring Cesar Chavez, and the farm worker movement.
When those very farm workers and the UFW came to ask for the dignity and rights Cesar Chavez fought for, legislators looked them in the eye and told them you cannot have those things. It is long past time we as Californians put this relic of institutional racism in the history books, along with those racist southern Democrats. Please let Assemblymember Bill Dodd and State Senator Lois Wolk know that farm worker rights matter to you as constituents.
Sean Raycraft is a lifelong Davis resident, and a proud shop steward with UFCW 8.