The California State Senate on Thursday approved a bill
that would allow agriculture workers in California - whose working conditions are as grueling as they come - to organize into a union if a majority of the workers at a site fill out membership cards that are certified by state labor officials. The process would replace one that requires the filing of a petition, and then a workplace referendum, which union organizers say has left the workers open to intimidation by managers, from threats of dismissal to warnings that their names would be passed to immigration officials.
Without diving into the the minefield of immigration policy, this is a good move for workers, no matter their legal status. Even illegal immigrants are entitled to working conditions that do not imperil their lives. As the story points out, 15 workers have died in the fields in the last six years despite state regulations requiring shade, water and other defenses against the oppressive summer heat in places like Imperial County and the Central Valley. A robust union - in this case, another set of watchdog eyes - would save lives.
The Legislature has passed similar bills in the past, followed by the Assembly, but Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has refused to sign them. With Jerry Brown as governor, chances are better that the legislation will become law (he hasn't tipped his hand yet).
Given the 1920s mood in Wisconsin, Michigan, Ohio and elsewhere, where anti-union politicians are trying to destroy the last vestiges of the collective bargaining system that helped create the American middle class, the move by the California Senate is welcome. It's a disgusting turn that political leaders are using the battered private sector as a weapon against public sector workers. Instead of fighting to bring public-sector wages, benefits and job protections down to the abased level of private sector jobs, political leaders should be fighting to elevate the quality of life of all.
With luck, the move here in California could be the next step, after the Wisconsin protests, in a broad national pushback against those who would drive more American workers into a downward economic spiral.
And the move by the legislature reminds me of one of the first stories I wrote for the Los Angeles Times back in April 1997, after spending a day working in a strawberry field. The top of the story is below. The full story can be found here
This time of day, this time of year, Saddleback Mountain begins the dawn in close, hovering, then slowly draws back as darkness seeps out of the sky. For a few moments, the peak seems to glow, back lit in the soft morning haze as the sun rises for its daily assault. Read More
And it is an assault, a relentless battering of energy that takes rather than gives, leaving you drained and parched, weak and dizzy.
Strawberry pickers know that. So they prepare for it as they gather just after 6 a.m. to begin work in a Western Marketing Co. field off Alton Parkway and Jeffrey Road.
The wardrobe is a trick of the trade, knowledge gained in many instances through years of experience. Some of the workers wear hats. Some wear bandannas. A few wear a combination of both, red and blue kerchiefs tied around baseball caps. And loose, long-sleeved shirts that guard against the chill now and the sun later on.