Sí, se puede! is the cry of empowerment that has been pushed from the fields and the picket lines into the mainstream political discourse in the last two decades. Fifty-one years ago this week, on September 8, 1965, Filipino pickers walked off the fields in Delano in Kern County.
Two weeks later, Mexican workers joined them. The strike would go on for five years, until table-grape growers were forced to sign labor contracts in 1970. The strike in Delano brought to prominence, among others, Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
An article in the Chronicle last year noted, “The 1965 Delano strike was a product of decades of worker organizing and earlier farmworker strikes. It took place the year after civil rights and labor activists forced Congress to repeal Public Law 78 and end the bracero contract labor program. Farmworker leaders then acted because growers could no longer bring braceros into the United States to break strikes.”
Moreover, the strike did not begin in Delano, the paper reports. Earlier Filipino workers went on strike in Coachella in Riverside County. There they won a 40 cent an hour wage increase, while forcing authorities to drop criminal charges against arrested strikers.
Six months later, Cesar Chavez and his group, the National Farm Workers Association (NFWA), later to be called UFW (United Farm Workers), would lead a strike of grape pickers on a march from Delano to the State Capitol in Sacramento.
While the struggle began 50 years ago, the struggle continues to this day. One week ago, legislation by California State Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez (San Diego), which would establish equitable overtime standards for farmworkers in line with other Californians, was approved on a bipartisan 44-32 vote by the Assembly. The bill now sits on the governor’s desk.
Beginning in 2019, Assembly Bill 1066 would gradually phase in standards for farmworker overtime, lowering the current 10-hour day level to the standard 8-hour day, and establishing for the first time a 40-hour standard work week, over a four-year period.
Beginning in 2019, the phase-in would be by annual half-hour-per-day increments until reaching eight hours, and annual five-hour-per-week increments until reaching 40 hours. Both final standards would be achieved in 2022.
AB 1066 additionally authorizes the governor to temporarily suspend a scheduled phase-in of overtime at any time until full implementation of phase-in overtime requirements or January 1, 2022, whichever comes first, if the governor suspends minimum wage increases based on economic conditions.
“The whole world eats the food provided by California farmworkers, yet we don’t guarantee fair overtime pay for the backbreaking manual labor they put in to keep us fed,” said Assemblymember Gonzalez. “We know this is the right thing to do, and thanks to the hard work of an incredible coalition throughout the state and across the country, we’re now one step closer to finally providing our hard-working farmworkers the dignity they deserve.”
In 1938, Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act (FLSA), which established the minimum wage, record keeping, child labor standards and overtime pay eligibility. However, the FLSA failed to include agricultural workers throughout the United States, and in 1941, the state legislature officially exempted all agricultural workers from statutory requirements of overtime.
In 1976, Governor Jerry Brown signed legislation establishing a modified standard for these workers which is still in effect today, with a 10-hour day and 60-hour week. Those 40-year-old overtime thresholds for agricultural workers haven’t been updated since.
In March, the importance of legislation to normalize overtime rules for California farmworkers received strong backing in a letter from former Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, who said that “it reflects our shared commitment to fair and humane working conditions for those whose labor feed our nation and much of the world.”
In 2014, California’s farms and ranches brought in $54 billion in revenue. More than 90 percent of California farmworkers are Latino and more than 80 percent are immigrants. Recent data also found the median personal income of California farmworkers to be just $14,000.
If Governor Brown wishes to crown his legacy and honor his historical commitment to the rights of farmworkers, he would sign this legislation on Thursday of this week, the 51st anniversary of the Delano Grape Strike.
—David M. Greenwald reporting