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Nunez hopes film cultivates goodwill for farmworker bill

August 21, 2008|Nancy Vogel | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — To get the movie-star governor's attention on a pet issue -- the plight of California farmworkers -- Fabian Nunez made a movie.

Toting a video camera, the assemblyman (D-Los Angeles) and his staff trekked through fields near Stockton and Bakersfield to interview field hands and labor contractors for a 21-minute documentary.

The Los Angeles Democrat and his crew were not always well received. In one scene, Nunez confronts a field boss about a lack of shade for workers, which is a violation of state law. In another, an angry grower stalks toward the camera, ordering Nunez and the crew off his tomato field. An eerie night scene shows workers toiling in the dark, picking onions by the light of headlamps, "faceless bodies working the soil," according Nunez's narration.

His purpose? To persuade Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger to sign one of his measures, now pending in the Legislature, intended to make it easier for farmworkers to unionize. Making the video -- with taxpayer-funded staff and equipment, though Assembly officials say they do not have a cost estimate -- was an unusual exercise for a state lawmaker. Their persuasive efforts normally stop at letter-writing.

"I saw this as an opportunity to reach the governor in a dignified way, knowing how he thinks and sees the world," said Nunez, "knowing that he really feels for the families of those who have died while toiling in the fields."

A former labor organizer and the son of a onetime farmworker, Nunez screened "California's Harvest of Shame" for Schwarzenegger last week before releasing it to the public on an Assembly website and elsewhere. He got some constructive criticism.

"He said some of the footage is great," said Nunez. But Schwarzenegger chided him for dramatizing the work done at night to avoid the hot sun. "People work night shifts," Nunez said the governor told him.

The documentary was filmed and produced by Gabriel Ortega and Pablo Espinoza, veterans of Spanish-language media company Univision who now work for the Assembly Democratic caucus.

Narrated partly by actor Martin Sheen, the documentary concludes that 2-year-old state regulations mandating water, breaks and shade for farmworkers are often flouted. It claims that 15 farmworkers have died of heatstroke since 2004, two while the documentary was underway.

The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration, using death certificates and coroner reports, has recorded 12 heat-related farmworker fatalities since 2004. Three deaths this year are under investigation and may be heat-related.

The dead include pregnant 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who collapsed in a vineyard near Stockton in May. Nunez and Schwarzenegger attended her funeral.

"Every time there's a death," said Nunez, "I know it gets to him."

After working closely with Schwarzenegger for four years, Nunez said, he's learned "you've got to get to his heart if you want him on something this big."

Nunez's measure, AB 2386, would change the way farmworker union elections have operated since 1975. Instead of having employees vote in secret ballots at the workplace on whether to unionize, the bill would allow workers to take a ballot home.

Nunez says such a method would still give workers a secret ballot while avoiding drawn-out campaigns of intimidation by both growers and the union.

California agricultural interests disagree. Farm owners argue that under the Nunez law, union officials could strong-arm workers in their homes. They call the bill a more convoluted version of one Schwarzenegger vetoed last year that would have allowed a union to bargain on workers' behalf if more than 50% of employees checked a card in support.

"It's simply another form of card check," said Barry J. Bedwell, president of the California Grape & Tree Fruit League, of the Nunez bill.

He accused the United Farm Workers, sponsor of the bill, of trying to change election rules to its advantage.

According to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, since 1998 there have been 19 elections certifying the UFW to bargain for employees and eight elections in which union employees have voted to oust the UFW. Three other decertification elections are unresolved.

UFW spokeswoman Vicki Adame compared the ballot in Nunez's measure to an absentee ballot that allows workers to "take it home and think it over."

Nunez said he does not know whether Schwarzenegger will sign the bill if, as appears likely, it passes the Democrat-controlled Assembly. It passed the Senate on Monday. Schwarzenegger's staff will certainly urge a veto, Nunez said.

The governor has taken no official position on the measure.

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nancy.vogel@latimes.com

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On latimes.com

Farmworker film

View Fabian Nunez's video at latimes.com/california.

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