It's not really news when a bill fails to become a law in Sacramento. In this age of partisan gridlock, plenty of good ideas are never enacted.
Still, one bill that made it to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger's desk last week, only to be killed by his veto, is worth looking at for what it tells us about how hard it is to clean out even antiquated moral rot, so long as powerful interests profit from it.
The bill, written by San Joaquin Valley Democratic state Sen. Dean Florez and passed by both houses of the Legislature on party-line votes, would have made agricultural workers, just like everybody else, eligible for overtime pay if they worked more than an eight-hour day. Under current law, farmworkers can collect overtime only if they've put in more than 10 hours in the fields. Florez's bill would also have given workers the right to take off one day out of every seven.
At first glance, and second, and third, the bill looks to be an economic and ethical no-brainer. But in his veto message, the governor noted that he didn't want to put the state's agribusinesses at a competitive disadvantage, which could end up costing us jobs.
Huh? We enforce overtime law on nonagricultural employers who can relocate their businesses to other climes. And farms, it's safe to say, are far less of a flight risk than other enterprises.
More fundamentally, overtime laws exist because we believe the risk of injury and wear and tear to workers rises if they work past a reasonable limit, and because we believe people's lives should include time for rest, family, socializing and off-the-job endeavors. The right to take off one day a week is as old as the Biblical injunction to keep the Sabbath.
By the logic that underlies the very concept of overtime, farmworkers should be entitled, if anything, to more rather than less protection. Does anyone do work that is more physically demanding and exhausting than theirs? In forbidding work every seventh day, the authors (or author) of the Old Testament had agricultural work specifically in mind, because other lines of work then were few and far between.
In vetoing the bill, however, the governor was echoing other traditions. Since 1941, state law has exempted farmworkers from overtime benefits (a provision that was modified in 1976 by mandating overtime for workdays exceeding 10 hours). The 1941 law was enacted to conform to the federal Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938 — the law that established the first federal minimum wage and maximum hour standards.
To get the act passed, however, President Franklin Roosevelt had to cut a deal with balking Southern senators and congressmen. He had to exempt farmworkers — that is, the millions of black field hands who sustained Southern agriculture at poverty wages — from coverage. The exclusion applied to farmworkers of all colors, but its purpose was to perpetuate a Southern labor system that had its roots in slavery.
But farmworkers, whatever their skin color, are second-class citizens everywhere. California's big farms had no more interest in paying fair wages or limiting work hours than their Jim Crow counterparts, as the 1941 state law makes clear — and as generations of Oakies and Mexican immigrants, and the writers and artists who have dramatized their plight, could attest.
Only once in the state's history were farmworkers accorded something close to equal rights. During Jerry Brown's first term as governor, California passed a law creating overtime pay for a 10-hour day, and enacted the only such law in the nation granting farmworkers collective bargaining rights. Three of Brown's appointees to the state Supreme Court — Chief Justice Rose Bird and Associate Justices Joseph Grodin and Cruz Reynoso — also had worked to advance farmworkers' rights before they joined the court.
Since Brown's tenure, however, agribusiness has reasserted its power. The industry was the chief funder of the successful 1986 campaign to oust those three justices from the court. Legislation like the Florez bill has come before the Legislature since then, and has languished. It may take another Brown governorship to put farmworkers on the same legal footing as the rest of us.
Wouldn't it be nice if the creation of a single standard of human equality in California didn't depend on one person's rotating in and out of the governor's office?
Harold Meyerson is editor at large of the American Prospect and a columnist for the Washington Post. He begins a six-week guest columnist stint on our Op-Ed page today.