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Farm Workers Celebrate Safety Law, Chavez Holiday


SACRAMENTO — Farm workers and union leaders Monday marked the 75th anniversary of the birth of Cesar Chavez by celebrating a new state law that requires seats in agricultural labor vans to be firmly secured and outlaws rickety wood benches.

Flanked by a squad of Highway Patrol officers who specialize in enforcing agricultural transportation laws in the sprawling San Joaquin Valley, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said the new law is a legacy of Chavez's efforts to make transportation safer for farm workers.

Rodriguez quoted the late farm labor leader as writing in 1974 that unsafe vehicles were "wheeled coffins ... carriages of death and sorrow" for farm laborers.

"Today, 28 years after Cesar wrote those words, there is finally a law in effect that bans these 'wheeled coffins,'" Rodriguez told a small gathering of farm workers in Capitol Park.

The law, introduced by Assemblyman Dean Florez (D-Shafter), was passed in 1999 following a crash in which 13 farm laborers stuffed into a van without seat belts plowed into a big truck near Five Points in Fresno County.

The crash brought new attention from the Legislature and Gov. Gray Davis to highway safety issues of agricultural workers and led to several reforms, including a requirement that all farm labor vans be equipped with seat belts.

But Florez said some labor contractors found a loophole that has enabled them to install seat belts in the vans but not replace the long wood benches and little chairs on which the workers sat.

Under the new law, effective Monday, wood seats are banned. All seats must now be secured in the same way that vehicle manufacturers fasten them and must face forward. Farm tools also must be secured.

"For too many years we have seen farm worker deaths as part of the harvest," Florez said.

For decades, farm workers have complained that labor contractors and growers have ignored their pleas to make transportation safer.

In 1999, Davis and the Legislature beefed up the Highway Patrol's special enforcement unit of a dozen officers in the San Joaquin Valley. But Florez said Monday that extra enforcement should be expanded to other farm areas, including the Imperial, Coachella, and Sacramento valleys and the Central Coast.

He is carrying a bill to do that and is sponsoring changes in the state budget that would give the patrol an extra $3 million to $6 million to finance such an expansion, including hiring at least 20 officers. Davis rejected a similar appropriation in 2000 and is facing a $17.5-billion budget shortfall this year.

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