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Like Racehorses, Political Jockeying Costs Money

June 10, 2002|George Skelton


What's good for the goose is good for the gander. We're not talking here about farm geese, but farm workers.

Actually, we're also talking about money and how it influences politicians. This episode has all the markings of a classic case.

The principal difference between the goose and the gander--two distinct groups of farm workers--is that one gives politicians money and the other does not.

Let's begin by turning back several pages.

In 1985, government officials investigated California racetracks and found that backstretch workers--grooms, manure shovelers--were being cheated out of overtime pay. Horse trainers were ordered to pay back wages.

But the horse-racing industry was a big-time player in Sacramento, a major donor of campaign money. It pushed through legislation reclassifying the stable hands as agriculture workers, thus effectively exempting them from overtime pay.

Now skip ahead to 2000. The dusty, cramped, unsanitary conditions of underpaid backstretch workers--who live on the job--have deteriorated even further. Meanwhile, track profits have sunk to dangerous lows because of increasing competition from Indian casinos and card clubs.

The solution: a union for the stable hands; Internet and telephone betting for the tracks.

Bingo. That bill sails through the Legislature.

But it's vetoed by Gov. Gray Davis, who fears "a significant expansion of gambling." The governor says, however, he'd sign a bill if it only protected track workers "from being subjected to dismal living and working conditions."

Last year, labor and tracks unite again. They sponsor a bill to permit collective bargaining--and binding arbitration if there's an impasse--coupled, once more, with Internet and telephone wagering.

There's scarcely a no vote in the Legislature. Davis signs the bill, explaining that a new federal law already has expanded gambling and this measure merely protects California's interests.

But let's be honest: It's also a fact that some interests had been betting wisely on certain politicians. The horse-racing industry had donated at least $189,000 to Davis since he took office and poured money all over the Legislature.

The Service Employees International Union, representing the stable hands, had donated $1.2 million to legislative candidates during the 2000 elections. Three days before Davis signed the bill on Aug. 13, 2001, the SEIU gave him $100,000. It added another $200,000 in December.

Return to the present.

The United Farm Workers union has been watching all this. If those racetrack "farm workers" can get binding arbitration--a coveted bargaining tool--why can't the real farm workers? Field hands often face even more "dismal living and working conditions"--to quote Davis--than do stable hands.

Good for the goose, good for the gander.

The UFW, founded by the late Cesar Chavez, believes that binding arbitration would force growers into labor contracts. Since 1975, when agriculture workers were given the right to unionize and collectively bargain, there have been 428 employee elections to join the UFW and negotiate a contract. But only 185 contracts have been signed.

The UFW blames foot-dragging growers, many negotiating in bad faith. Some talks date back to the '70s.

The farm lobby concedes a handful of growers may be guilty, but insists this doesn't justify punishing an entire industry with a draconian measure that exists in no other private enterprise. Except, of course, horse racing.

The UFW solution was dreamed up by political consultant Richie Ross, a onetime strike organizer for Chavez. A bill by Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) was amended to simply grant all farm workers--track and field--the same binding arbitration rights.

The bill barely passed the Senate, 21-13. Most Democrats voted for it, Republicans against. It's now in the Assembly, unnerving moderate Democrats.

The centrist governor, who tries to walk both sides of the farm fence, has sent signals he'll probably veto the bill if it passes. But he'd rather it just disappear while he's running for reelection.

The agriculture industry is circling the wagons. "We're not going to tolerate this," says Roy Gabriel, lobbyist for the California Farm Bureau Federation.

"Horse racing got off-track betting as a trade-off. What do we get?"

Good point. On the racetrack bill, employers and employees were united because they both benefited. That's one difference.

But the other difference is that the UFW--unlike the SEIU--does not contribute campaign money. The farm lobby does.

We'll see whether the goose and the gander are equal in the eyes of politicians.

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