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Lawmakers' Own Roots Support Farm Workers

September 09, 2002|George Skelton

SACRAMENTO — SACRAMENTO--Cold, dry statistics sprang to life and displayed the new political reality during a recent Assembly floor fight. These familiar statistics:

* The Latinos' share of the California population grew from 19% to 32% between 1980 and 2000 and is projected to reach 39% by 2020.

* There were only seven Latino legislators after the 1980 election. Today there are 26--seven in the Senate, 19 in the Assembly.

Nearly one-fourth of the Assembly now is Latino. Back 30 years ago, only one-fortieth was.

That, of course, is handy fodder for academicians lecturing abstractly about rising Latino political power.

On this day, however, real Latino politicians were exercising real power.

The fight involved farm workers and growers. Some rotten-apple growers have been stonewalling United Farm Worker negotiators for years.

Now all growers--many very angry--are being affected by the proposed legislative cure.

The UFW and its Capitol point man--Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco)--kept coming back at session's end with new collective bargaining proposals, hoping to pass one Gov. Gray Davis would sign. A bill permitting binding arbitration when negotiations deadlocked led to a second proposal for mandatory mediation. The state Agriculture Labor Relations Board would have the final say, subject to court appeal.

That mediation bill (SB 1156) is what the Assembly was intensely debating Aug. 30.

I was struck by the number of Latino lawmakers who rose and spoke passionately of their farm worker roots. Some spoke at length in Spanish.

It's something you wouldn't have heard 15 years ago, let alone 35 when the powerful Senate leader--Democrat Hugh Burns of Fresno--carried water for growers. Indeed, the Central Valley then was represented in Sacramento by white men beholden to growers.

A shift began in the '70s. Fresno Democrat George Zenovich, a labor ally, replaced Burns in the Senate and co-sponsored the bill giving farm workers collective bargaining rights and creating the ALRB.

But few then could have envisioned today's diverse political representation from California's farm belt.

Example: Assemblywoman Sarah Reyes (D-Fresno), 41, a former TV reporter-anchor. She wasn't going to speak during the debate, Reyes says, but "all these memories came back." Memories of picking grapes at age 10 with her parents and six siblings.

"What I remember the most," she told lawmakers, "were those early morning hours that we got up at 3 a.m. dressed like it was the Arctic North. We went out into the field, I looked down that long row and was told, 'Get picking.'

"As you went down the row, you took off the jacket because it got a little warmer, you took off the sweater ... you put on a bandanna because you want to block your head from the sun ...

"All you did was pick and look down the row, wondering if there was ever going to be an end to the row. And when you get to the end of the row, they go, 'There's another row.' ...

"This is an easy vote. When I decide how to vote on this, I remember when I was 10 years old."

Assemblyman Simon Salinas (D-Salinas), 46, told of coming to California from Mexico with his migrant worker parents, who raised 12 children. "It's very offensive to me when people use the word 'illegal alien,' " he said. "Come with me to Salinas, and I will show you those hard-working 'illegal aliens.' "

The only Republican to vote for the bill was Assemblyman Robert Pacheco, 68, of Walnut, who recalled a childhood picking cotton and onions with his dad. "The bottom line," he said, "is this: As a farm worker remembering my past, my roots, where I come from, I cannot abandon that."

The bill passed the Assembly 49-27 and the Senate 25-12. The next night, the Legislature sent Davis yet another bill (AB 2596) placing a five-year "sunset" on the mediation measure and capping the number of mediations at 75. Davis had proposed a three-year "sunset" with 35 mediations.

Davis' advisors are sharply divided over whether he should sign the legislation. Some say it's too rushed and he should delay a year to strive for a worker-grower consensus; moreover, he shouldn't allow the bellicose Burton to shove him around. Others argue the proposal is close enough to his liking and growers never will be satisfied; besides, he belongs with the union.

"If he doesn't sign the bill, he puts many of us who have been his staunchest supporters in a very precarious position," says Democratic state chairman Art Torres, an ex-lawmaker who helped push the original ALRB bill. "If he's going to get people excited about the election, he has to give them a reason to vote."

Reyes would tell Davis this isn't about some abstract notion of centrism. This is about real field hands trudging down row after row as the grower stomps on their collective bargaining rights.

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