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UFW Used Brinkmanship to Win 2 Laws

Labor: The union's legislative team cornered Gov. Davis into signing mediation bills.

October 03, 2002|GREGG JONES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SACRAMENTO — As the clock ticked toward midnight, Arturo Rodriguez, president of the United Farm Workers union, faced a momentous decision.

It was Aug. 31, barely three hours from the time when the California Legislature was required by law to adjourn, and the UFW had a historic offer on the table. After trying for months to block union efforts to rewrite the state's farm labor law, Gov. Gray Davis was offering to sign a bill giving farm workers mandatory mediation, a powerful new weapon when contract negotiations with growers stall--but only for three years and 35 cases.

Rodriguez agonized over his decision for a minute or two, then spoke into his cellular phone to union advisor Richie Ross at the Capitol: Call the governor's bluff and send him a bill for five years and 75 cases--a bigger program that stood a better chance of ending decades of poverty and failed contract negotiations for farm workers, UFW leaders reasoned.

"It was a gamble, there's no doubt about that," said Rodriguez, son-in-law of the late UFW founder Cesar Chavez. "Cesar taught us that sometimes you need to take risks to make progress. If he were here, I think he would have done the same thing."

The gamble paid off this week when Davis decided to sign a pair of UFW bills into law--a decision union officials and their political allies are hailing. The legislation gives the United Farm Workers of America--and a handful of other unions representing agricultural workers--the right to request a form of binding arbitration in 75 cases over the next five years.

Growers say the governor's action will cripple California's $27-billion agriculture industry.

In signing the bills, Davis turned aside political pressure from the growers, who have contributed endorsements and hundreds of thousands of dollars to his reelection campaign. Some of those growers reacted to the governor's decision by withdrawing their endorsements this week.

Davis acknowledged growers' concerns Wednesday on San Francisco's KGO-AM (810), noting that "farmers are under a lot of pressure from international competition" and "consolidation in the supermarkets." But, he added, "very few people on the planet Earth live under more difficult circumstances than farm workers, and if this helps allow them to convert some of their elections into contracts, I think it's a good thing."

How the UFW managed to pull off such a triumph after years of declining membership and failed negotiations is a story of legislative skill, political brinkmanship and 1960s-style street tactics, say union leaders, lobbyists, labor experts and other analysts.

"This is truly a historic piece of legislation," said Kent Wong, director of the Center for Labor Research and Education at UCLA. "It's a major breakthrough for the farm workers."

UFW leaders are quick to share the credit with everyone from Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco), who carried the original bill and subsequent versions through the Legislature, to Davis, who ultimately dropped his opposition to the UFW legislation and engaged the union in serious negotiations, union leaders say.

Latino Clout

The success is also testament to the growing clout of Latino legislators in Sacramento, according to UFW leaders and others involved in the battle.

Monday's victory was the culmination of three years of efforts to position the UFW as a political force in Sacramento, said Ross, a longtime UFW advisor and political strategist.

As the UFW tells the story, it was an effort that began with the union's successful attempt in 2000 to block and then rewrite a bill making Chavez's birthday a state holiday. And it built on Davis' August 2001 signature on a bill aimed at preventing labor contractors from cheating farm workers out of wages--the first time in more than 20 years the UFW had gotten a piece of its legislation signed into law, labor experts say.

The seeds of Monday's success were planted in December, as UFW leaders were discussing possible bills for the 2002 Legislature. Ross received a call from Richard Rios, a labor consultant for Assemblyman Herb Wesson (D-Culver City). Rios had worked on a Wesson bill the previous year that gave backstretch workers at racetracks the right of binding arbitration in contract disputes with employers.

Rios "calls me up and says, 'Mr. Ross, have you ever thought about binding arbitration' [for farm workers facing stalled negotiations with growers]? As soon as he said it, I knew that was it," Ross said.

In January, the UFW leaders and Ross drafted a bill inspired by Wesson's approach, but the UFW quickly ran into its first roadblock when Wesson--just taking over as Assembly speaker--wouldn't agree to carry it, Ross said.

With the deadline for filing bills less than a week away, the UFW went to Burton. The Senate leader, a longtime friend of labor, agreed to lead the UFW charge by carrying the bill.

Burton was certain to deliver the Senate, so the UFW turned its attention to the Assembly and lined up 41 coauthors.

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