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How the UFW dug itself into a hole over water

The union threatened to oppose a water bond unless 'card-check' legislation passed. That backfired, and now it must deal with the difficult political and financial aftermath.

September 09, 2009|Miriam Pawel | Miriam Pawel is the author of the forthcoming book "The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement."

A year ago, when state legislators proposed a $9.8-billion water bond, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez applauded: "We are very excited about that because we want to see a viable agricultural industry throughout the state of California; we want to see farmworkers employed."

Last week, Rodriguez created a political committee, bankrolled with $1 million from a national labor coalition, to oppose the very same idea.

It's not the interests of farmworkers that have changed; the UFW's about-face appears to have been a clumsy attempt at political blackmail.

In the final days of the legislative session, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger again insisted that he would sign a package of bills addressing the state's critical water needs only if it included a bond issue that would finance construction of dams or a canal to move water from north to south.

At the time the governor reiterated his ultimatum, a bill was sitting on his desk designed to make it easier for unions to organize farmworkers. The UFW would no longer have to win secret-ballot elections to represent workers; it could simply collect signed cards from a majority of employees at a particular ranch.

Schwarzenegger has vetoed similar bills three times, so this time the UFW opted for a new tactic -- a veiled threat that unless the governor signed SB 789, the union would oppose the water bond he wanted.

The linkage was convoluted at best. "Before considering any state water deal, lawmakers and the governor must ensure that farmworkers have access to clean, cool drinking water and shade," state Democratic Party Chairman John Burton wrote in a note suggesting UFW supporters lobby the governor. " ... [T]he only recourse for farmworkers to protect themselves would be through the collective bargaining process as provided for in SB 789."

The UFW's bill dovetailed with the national labor movement's top priority -- legislation to create a similar "card-check" mechanism on the federal level. Unions consider the change vital to offset rules that enable employers to stall elections and intimidate workers. A card-check law for California farmworkers might help propel the national bill, which is why Change to Win, a six-union coalition led by the Service Employees International Union, donated $1 million to fund the UFW's anti-water-bond campaign.

The move backfired. One of the governor's top advisors denounced it as an "intimidation tactic," and Schwarzenegger plucked the UFW bill from the stack of pending laws and vetoed it.

That left the UFW trying to justify a position at odds with its historic support for water bonds, which Rodriguez once hailed as "good for both growers and farmworkers." Last week, the union's organizing director offered this remarkable rationale for the union's opposition to water bonds: If more water is available for agriculture, UFW Vice President Armando Elenes wrote in a note to a longtime UFW supporter who then posted it on an Internet listserv, the growers will "continue abusing the workers and the jobs that will be created will not be good jobs."

That no se puede attitude shouldn't come as a surprise to leaders of Change to Win, formed in 2005 with the promise that the new collaboration would increase union membership. One of the coalition's first ventures was a million-dollar organizing campaign in the San Joaquin Valley vineyards, an attempt to revitalize the UFW and turn around a legacy of neglect in the fields. The large unions in Change to Win poured in people and dollars to help their tiny partner, but the campaign failed. The UFW could not repair decades of mistrust in a few short weeks, and a majority of workers at a large vineyard voted decisively against joining the union. In the three years since, workers have decertified the UFW at several of the remaining California workplaces where it has contracts, and the union represents only a tiny fraction of farmworkers in the state.

Those members' dues last year totaled just over $2.5 million, according to federal filings, and the UFW reports barely $100,000 in its long dormant political action committee. So the $1-million donation from Change to Win represents a significant windfall.

It's not a huge sum for Change to Win, but when SEIU President Andy Stern led the coalition's exodus from the AFL-CIO, he promised that Change to Win would focus on effective organizing. Stern is currently enmeshed in costly, divisive fights on several fronts: He is fighting the union representing his own employees; fighting the deposed leaders of a California healthcare local; fighting his former ally, the Hotel Employees and Restaurant Employees International Union, and fighting the Schwarzenegger administration over furloughs and budget cuts -- all at a time when the labor movement has an extraordinary opportunity to make national gains with a sympathetic administration and Congress.

Now that the water-bond-for-card-check gambit has failed, Stern might want to reconsider and redirect Change to Win's $1 million into a fight that actually benefits workers, rather than one aimed at eliminating their jobs. And the UFW might want to stop finding excuses and begin the difficult work necessary to take advantage of the 1975 law that makes California the only state where farmworkers have the right to union elections.

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