Hands off our lunch!

SAN FRANCISCO — “Governor Schwarzenegger, I’d like you to put yourself in my shoes and work eight hours a day in the rain, with mud up to your knees, without a break,” said Salinas Valley farmworker Liliana Sanchez. Pausing during a public hearing on Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger’s plan to gut lunch break regulations, workers from a cross-section of occupations — restaurant and garment workers, bike messengers, day laborers and others — gathered for a noontime press conference near City Hall Feb. 8 to tell what the change would mean to them.

“The employers are already not giving us breaks,” Sanchez said, “but with this new law it will give them a whip to exploit us even further.”

The Feb. 8 hearing was one of three on the governor’s proposals to greatly weaken the current requirement that employers provide an unpaid 30 minute break after six hours of work or pay an hour of wages. If the changes are approved, employers would no longer have to actually provide the break, just tell workers they have a right to one. Suing employers who break the law would also be made more difficult. Other hearings are in Los Angeles and Fresno.

“We think that laws should protect us, and preserve social justice for workers,” said day laborer Julio Loyola. “We are human beings, we are not machines,” he added. “This is not a movie, we are talking about real life here. We need to be able to work and be healthy to care for our families.”

“We came to the United States to have a better life,” said garment worker Fei Yi Chin. “We dream of working hard and someday reaching that goal.” But garment workers work very hard in exploitative conditions for low wages, she added. “Instead of cutting our lunch and other breaks, the governor and the state of California need to enforce the existing laws.”

“What the governor calls flexibility, we call takeaways,” said San Francisco Labor Council head Tim Paulson. “We are here to stand up for all workers, especially those who are not covered by a collective bargaining agreement.” Paulson pointed out that since becoming governor in fall 2003, Schwarzenegger has slashed workers compensation payments to disabled workers, vetoed a minimum wage hike, cut staffing ratios for nurses and proposed privatizing public workers’ pensions.

The Hands off Our Lunch coalition includes the California Labor Federation and San Francisco Labor Council, Asian Law Caucus, Chinese Progressive Association, Day Labor Program and Women’s Collective, East Bay Alliance for a Sustainable Economy, La Raza Centro Legal, Mujeres Unidas y Activas, S.F. Bike Messenger Association, UNITE HERE Local 2, Women’s Employment Rights Clinic, and Young Workers United.

mbechtel@pww.org.