by David Bacon
For the state’s first hundred-plus years, certain unspoken rules governed California politics. In a state where agriculture produced more wealth than any industry, the first rule was that growers held enormous power.
Tax dollars built giant water projects that turned the Central and Imperial Valleys into some of the nation’s most productive farmland. Land ownership was concentrated in huge corporate plantation-like farms. Growers used political power to assure a steady flow of workers from one country after another-Japan, China, the Philippines, Yemen, India, and of course Mexico-to provide the labor that made the land productive.
Agribusiness kept farm labor cheap, at wages far below those of people in the state’s growing urban centers. When workers sought to change their economic condition, grower power in rural areas was near absolute-strikes were broken and unions were kept out.
The second unwritten rule was therefore that progressive movements grew more easily in the cities, where unions and community organizations became political forces to be reckoned with. In the legislature, these rules generally meant that Democrats and pro-labor proposals came from urban districts, while resistance came from Republicans in rural constituencies.
That historic divide in California politics is changing, however.
On June 2 the State Assembly failed to pass a bill that would give farm workers the same overtime pay that workers in urban areas have had since the 1930s. In the outcome, echoes can still be heard of those old rules. But the vote also makes clear that past certainties are certain no longer.
Congress passed the Fair Labor Standards Act in 1938, which established the nation’s first overtime pay requirement-time and a half after forty hours in a week. In the debate, Congress members from the South, heavily dependent on Black workers in cotton and tobacco, opposed making the law apply to farm labor.
Representative J. Mark Wilcox of Florida openly justified this exclusion: “Then there is another matter of great importance in the South, and that is the problem of our Negro labor,” he declared. “There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor… You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it. Not only would such a situation result in grave social and racial conflicts but it would also result in throwing the Negro out of employment and in making him a public charge.”
The enslavement of African Americans set a pattern of inequality that lasted long after slavery itself was abolished, and the pattern was then applied to other people of color. While the descendants of slaves worked without overtime pay on the farms of the South, immigrants from Mexico and Asia faced the same exclusion in the West.
The rise of California’s farm worker movement began to change the power equation in the 1960s, however, forcing some growers to agree to union contracts, an unprecedented step. Yet even when the legislature debated the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, the nation’s first law guaranteeing union rights for farm workers, the votes in favor came from urban Democrats, while rural Republicans maintained a solid front against it.
Nevertheless, the farm workers movement sparked a sea change in the politics of rural California. Growers did not lose their power, but even in rural communities that power was no longer uncontested.
In 1975, the year the ALRA was passed, Democrats in the legislature also passed the first proposal to give farm workers overtime pay. But it was still a standard below that of other workers – time and a half after ten hours in a day instead of eight, and 60 hours a week instead of 40. Growers have to pay overtime on the seventh day of work, but only if none of the previous workdays are less than six hours. In practice, few California farm workers today get overtime pay.
Through the 1980s and ‘90s, when Republicans held the governorship and a majority in the legislature, changing that overtime rule was not in the cards. Even when Democrats regained their legislative majority and passed a bill to restore the 8-hour day to most California workers in 1999, farm workers were still excepted. Finally, in 2010, Democrats passed SB 1121 to remove the exception for farm workers in the 8-hour overtime standard. Then-Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed it.
In his veto message, Schwarzenegger said the 8-hour day and 40-hour week would “not improve the lives of California’s agricultural workers and instead will result in additional burdens on California’s businesses, increased unemployment and lower wages.” He used the argument put forward by grower groups in every overtime battle, predicting that “multiple crews will be hired to work shorter shifts, resulting in lower take-home pay for all workers. Businesses trying to compete under the new wage rules may become unprofitable and go out of business.”
In 2012 Assemblymember Michael Allen introduced a similar bill sponsored by the United Farm Workers. It passed the Senate, but this time it failed in the State Assembly. Fractures in the Assembly Democratic Caucus surprised even the state horse breeders association, part of the grower opposition to the bill. It listed five Democrats “all of whom voted ‘no.’ (Amazing!),” including urban liberals like Joan Buchanan, Fiona Ma and Toni Atkins, as well as others, like Susan Bonilla who skipped the vote.
“Unfortunately, there are a lot of terrible reasons why farm workers have been excluded for 74 years,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez commented bitterly at the time. “Often people ask us why? As should now be apparent, Democrats are just as vulnerable to big money as Republicans are.”
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