Saturday, September 5, 2009

Labor Day: Farm workers deserve better

This is Labor Day weekend, a time for picnics, families, good food and enjoying one last respite before the work of Fall begins in earnest.

It is also time to consider those who labor, and, yes, honor the labor unions that brought you this holiday.

I have been staying out of California politics -- I don't live there anymore (though I still have a home in Sacramento) -- and my focus is here in Virginia. Yet there are a few issues that stick with me and which speak broadly across state and regional lines.

One of those issues is the condition of farm workers and their continuing struggle to unionize.

I want to register my deep disappointment with Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger for vetoing on Thursday SB 789 by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, a simple bill that would have made it easier for farm workers to organize. Perhaps the veto is no surprise, but it is nonetheless deflating for those who struggle to organize workers who are, by definition, difficult to organize because they are migrants. Read the bill for yourself by clicking HERE.

I know I will alienate someone here; I am mindful of how emotional this issue gets especially in California. I once got into hot water in Auburn, Calif., with a prominent and loyal parishioner when I preached about how growers and union representatives could find reconciliation. My grandfather, when he lived in Modesto, was Julio Gallo's accountant, and I can tell you the suspicion of unions -- especially farm unions -- runs deep in my family.

Yet, years ago I met Cesar Chavez, the founder of the United Farm Workers when he was leading a boycott against Gallo Wines and grape growers. I heard Chavez speak many times over the years, and interviewed him when I was a journalist.

I was much inspired by Chavez and how his deep Christian faith drove him to create a union for a people who are truly at the bottom of society's food chain. Yes, Chavez had many flaws as an organizer, he made decisions that were not always strategically good for his union. He could not compromise, which was both his strength and undoing.

But he never lost sight of the fact that those who harvest our food deserve a fair shake and have families like those of us who enjoy the food farm workers bring to our table. Our food is affordable because farm workers are paid poorly. Their working and living conditions are not much better than in the era of John Steinbeck's The Grapes of Wrath and Carey McWilliams' epic documentary book, Factories in the Field.

Recently the nation eulogized Ted Kennedy and many powerful people -- Republican and Democrat, and independent alike -- paid their respects at his funeral, including Governor Schwarzenegger. Let us not forget the support the Kennedys gave to Chavez and his farm workers union; Robert Kennedy traveled to the fields of Central California to be with Chavez during one of his fasts; it was, in fact, Robert Kennedy more than anyone else who brought Chavez and his union to national attention.

No doubt Governor Schwarzenegger is sticking to the Republican Party line on unions with his veto. No doubt Senator Steinberg is appealing to his union base with his bill. No doubt fund-raising appeals capitalizing on the veto are already in the mail on both sides. I know how the game is played in Sacramento. I find all of that sad. Truthfully, we have not had gubernatorial leadership on farm labor issues in more than 30 years. At least Senator Steinberg, a friend of many years, is trying.

Governor Schwarzenegger, at his best, has appealed to a "post-partisan" approach to California's and the nation's problems, from water to the budget, to the economy and poverty. Certainly he could include the condition of farm workers in his appeal, and show leadership on the issue rather than merely sitting back and responding to the Legislature with a veto. He is the governor; leadership must start with him. To paraphrase Ted Kennedy, farm workers may be out of fashion but they are not without human needs.

The governor of California can do better. So can our nation. ¡Sí se puede!

Photo of farm workers in The Sacramento Bee by Bryan Patrick. Photo of Chavez, photographer unknown but I am happy to give credit if someone can provide the information; it appears to have been taken in Los Angeles late in his life.

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