Ever since the right to organize was guaranteed to workers in the National Labor Relations Act, signed by President Franklin Roosevelt over 75 years ago, it has been the subject of a profound, ongoing tug-of-war. Employers have fought to do away with its rights and protections, and workers have struggled to expand those protections and to extend them to others not yet covered.
The latest round is playing out in California. Just an hour before it would have become law, California Governor Jerry Brown last week vetoed a long-sought and urgently needed protection for the state's over 400,000 farm workers, who feed not just California but much of the rest of the country.
The Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, SB 104, was introduced by State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and backed by the United Farm Workers union, the California Labor Federation and many union and community groups. It would have allowed farm workers the option to vote on a union by filling out state-issued representation ballots in their homes, in addition to the present secret-ballot election held on farm property, with all the attendant possibilities for employer intimidation.
Similar bills were repeatedly vetoed by Republican Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger.
What surprised many was that Brown, a Democrat who as governor in 1975 signed the pioneering Agricultural Labor Relations Act extending collective bargaining rights to California's farm workers, would veto a law needed to ensure that these workers could actually practice those rights.
It is not hard to see the hand of the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Farm Bureau Federation and dozens of other agricultural and business organizations in the outcome. In a ploy strikingly similar to employer attacks against the national Employee Free Choice Act, the farm and business groups falsely claimed the state law would do away with the current secret ballot election procedure.
For the moment, hundreds of thousands of farm workers are left to deal with tiny wages and miserable working conditions, including the lack of rest breaks, heat training, water and shade that have led to several deaths in recent years, without the union representation that is their right.
What is certain is that the United Farm Workers union will not let the present situation rest. The UFW is already urging supporters to tell Gov. Brown what they think of his veto.
As the union renews its campaign for basic labor rights, farm workers will need even more the support of their union sisters and brothers, and of all who value justice for workers everywhere.