When Congress passed the National Labor Relations Act in 1935, it exempted two classes of largely non-white workers from coverage: domestic workers and farmworkers. The California Legislature followed up on this discriminatory treatment in 1941 by exempting farmworkers from receiving overtime pay, an exclusion modified in 2001 but that still denies those working in the fields the same right to overtime after working eight hours a day and forty hours a week available to other workers. Last week, State Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez won Senate passage of a bill to give farmworkers equal overtime rights. But as the bill moves to the Assembly, the United Farm Workers union –which would be expected to be leading the struggle – has broken from the rest of organized labor and not endorsed Florez’s measure.

Progress for Low-Wage Workers

Last week saw two promising developments for domestic workers and farmworkers long denied equal labor protections with other workers, originally on racial grounds.

In New York, the State Senate passed a domestic workers’ bill of rights – guaranteeing paid holidays, sick days, vacation days and the right to overtime pay and collective bargaining. Since the Assembly passed a similar bill last year, the measure should soon become law.

Significantly, the New York Times editorial in favor of the domestic workers bill also urged legislators to “revive and pass a long-stalled bill with similar protections for farm workers.” This echoes its April 6, 2009 editorial on behalf of a federal farmworker justice bill, a campaign whose launching the preceding week I wrote about here.

There was also good news for low-wage workers in California. Senator Dean Florez won Senate passage of SB 1121, which guarantees equal treatment for farmworkers under state overtime laws. Florez, whose summer job as a teenager in a hot Central Valley potato packing house gave him first hand experience of the rigors of such labor, has long championed farmworkers. Florez now faces term limits, and wants to end the overtime injustice for farmworkers before leaving office.

Obstacles to Passage

Winning enactment of Florez’s bill will not be easy.

As anyone familiar with the history of California agriculture knows, the State Legislature and/or Governor have long prioritized agribusiness over farmworkers. Cesar Chavez and the UFW began changing this dynamic in the 1970’s, and the UFW has long been seen as the key counterbalance to growers’ vast political clout.

That’s what makes the UFW’s failure to endorse Florez’s bill so surprising. And in case anyone thinks that the UFW’s silence means that there is something amiss with the bill, consider the California Labor Federation’s letter of support, which states:

“Under existing law, farmworkers do not earn overtime until after the 10th hour of work or after the sixth day. This is simply wrong. Farmworkers do some of the most demanding physical labor. They are exposed to chemicals and pesticides on a daily basis. They work in extreme temperatures, often beginning before the sun rises and ending after it sets. What group is more deserving of overtime protection or more in need of rest at the end of the day and week than these workers?”

The UFW Position

According to UFW spokesperson Maria Machuca, “it’s great what Senator Florez is doing and we totally agree with his legislation.” But she said the UFW currently has “no plans to endorse SB 1121,” as the union “is focusing on the majority sign-up legislation.”

Machuca also noted “farm workers have mixed feelings on the issue of overtime. Many want to be treated like other workers who receive overtime after eight hours. At the same time, they fear growers will reduce their hours if the general standard on overtime is applied to them.”

Sounds like the UFW needs to bolster its worker education. After all, the same arguments could be used against any measures to increase wages or benefits to farmworkers, or even to reduce pesticides in fields (growers have long argued that the UFW’s insistence on anti-pesticide contract provisions hurts workers).

Florez Remains Optimistic

I asked Florez about the UFW’s non-endorsement, and he said he had “no doubt that the UFW will eventually come on board.” He said he understood that the UFW had other state and federal priorities, and is particularly trying to get a card check recognition bill signed by the Governor.

But Florez also made clear that SB 1121 “needs everyone’s support,” and that people are wrong to assume that Schwarzenegger will veto the bill: “Giving farmworkers the same compensation for overtime as other workers is a moral issue. Many said the Governor would veto my legislation holding those responsible for pesticide drift, and he signed it.”

On the other hand, Schwarzengger has vetoed UFW-backed card check recognition bills for farmworkers three times, and is likely to do so again this fall.

The Return of Jerry Brown

The UFW’s legislative success in the 1970’s was repeatedly frustrated by pro-grower Governor Ronald Reagan. It took UFW ally Jerry Brown’s election in 1974 to change this dynamic, and to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975.

History may be about to repeat itself. Should Brown take office next year, farmworkers will have a Governor who will eagerly sign the overtime bill and, if the UFW can build sufficient support, their card-check measure as well.

Governor Schwarzenegger knows Brown will sign the overtime measure, and might want to get some good press before he leaves office by signing the Florez bill. It would likely earn him a great New York Times editorial on his way out of office, and help him out at home given his wife’s relationship to the historically pro-UFW Kennedy family.

Randy Shaw is the author of Beyond the Fields: Cesar Chavez, the UFW and the Struggle for Justice in the 21st Century.