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California Labor Gets a New Monument But No New Rights

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California Labor Gets a New Monument But No New Rights

by Tom Gallagher

So far as symbolism goes, this was a pretty good week for California workers. So far as reality goes, not so much. On the symbolic side, President Barack Obama is honoring California farm workers' past organizing history by designating the former United Farm Workers union headquarters as a national monument. On the real side, Governor Jerry Brown vetoed two bills offering the state's current farm workers greater protection against heat prostration in the state's growing fields where temperatures can often exceed 100 degrees. This despite the fact that at least 14 farm workers were known to have died of heat-related causes since 2005. And that's not all -- the Governor also nixed a bill extending the rights of domestic employees.

This latter veto may actually have sent up the greater shock waves. Like farm workers, domestic workers were excluded from the National Labor Relations and Fair Labor Standards Acts, meaning that they have never enjoyed some rights and protections most Americans have long taken for granted, The Domestic Workers Bill of Rights, as supporters called it, would have covered the state's estimated 200,000 housekeepers, nannies, and caregivers working in private homes and guaranteed them overtime pay, meal and rest breaks, kitchen privileges for shifts over five hours, and adequate sleeping conditions for live-in workers. New York has recently passed a groundbreaking domestic worker protection law and there were high hopes that California would follow suit. The bill's endorsers included the New York Times and Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa. Brown was, however, unmoved, citing "unanswered questions" of the sort that labor law opponents typically raise: "Will there be fewer jobs for domestic workers? Will the available jobs be for fewer hours?"

But so far as irony goes, the domestic employees' situation certainly couldn't touch that of the farm workers. In the future, schoolchildren will be able to visit the Cesar E. Chavez National Monument in Keene to learn about the past when Chavez organized the union to improve the industry's working conditions. On the road there, the children may well pass some of the estimated 1.3 million present day California farm workers whom Governor Brown declined to help. When Chavez was alive, Brown was known as a farm worker champion. Today he sounds more like the standard corporate opponent who shuffles back and forth between arguing that a law protecting workers is either too general or too specific but somehow never just right.

In his veto message on a bill that would have established new heat-related illness protection standards, Brown argued that "it would create through legislation a new enforcement structure that would single out agricultural employers and burden the courts with private lawsuits." And of a bill that would have made it a crime for farmers not to provide adequate shade and water to their field workers he said that "While I believe enforcement of our heat standards can be improved, I am not convinced that creating a new crime -- and a crime that applies only to one group of employers -- is the answer."

Not everyone was unhappy with the governor, of course. Agribusiness loved the vetoes. And some on the ideological right, like the conservative New York Sun, were positively ecstatic. The paper's response to arguments that the status quo in California offers animals more protection from heat than farm workers was that "This seems to overlook the idea that humans have the freedom to quit and leave a job with poor working conditions, while animals do not."

And, by the way, Brown also vetoed a bill extending collective bargaining rights to graduate student researchers at California's public universities. And what are we to make of all of this? For the optimists, there is "the glass is half full" aspect -- California's Democrat controlled legislature has passed a rash of excellent labor legislation in the face of lock step Republican opposition. On the "half empty" side, we have the Democratic governor vetoing it all. Some outside the state who still associate Brown with progressive, even radical ideas may be surprised by this, but as anyone who has followed his career closely knows, Brown is only radical when he is out of power: Jerry Brown the presidential candidate and radio talk show host bears little resemblance to Jerry Brown the Governor. As long time Republican operative Dan Schnur approvingly noted, "He's much more centrist than most members of his own party in the Legislature." There was a time when Brown would have considered such praise damning.

The optimist will hope that much of this legislation will become law in the long run. But, as they say, in the long run we'll all be dead. And due to the vetoes, there'll likely be a few more farm workers dead in the short run as well. Just two days after the governor decided this legislation wasn't necessary, a 51-year-old farm worker died after passing out while picking lettuce in 94-degree heat on a Salinas Valley farm.

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Tom Gallagher was a Bernie Sanders delegate elected from California's 12th Congressional District. He is the author of "The Primary Route: How the 99 Percent Takes on the Military Industrial Complex."

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