Militant Journalism

Farmworkers march across California to demand governor sign labor rights bill

The 24-day march that began in Delano, California, led by the United Farm Workers came to a powerful close August 26, ending at the steps of the state capitol in Sacramento. Marchers walked 9 to 18 miles each day for a total of a 335-mile peregrinación, or pilgrimage, through the Central Valley, which included stops in Richgrove, Terra Bella, Porterville, Farmersville, Cutler, Partlier, Calva, Biola, LeGrand, Turlock, Manteca, Visalia, Madera, Merced, Modesto, Stockton, Lodi, Galt and Elk Grove. The demonstration ended in Sacramento, where they were joined by over 5,000 supporters.

As part of a larger effort during the month of August, thousands of farmworkers and members of the community mobilized quickly to bring attention to the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, or AB 2183, and the need for California Governor Gavin Newsom to sign it. The bill would be pivotal for protecting migrant farmworkers’ right to vote in a union without the threat of intimidation. Specifically, farmworkers would be allowed to vote with mail-in ballots from their residences.

After decades of cruel and relentless tactics to thwart unionization through strike-breaking, racial antagonism, physical and verbal intimidation, and threat of deportation of workers by growers, AB 2183 would be an important step forward for farmworker organizing in California. Since the 1930s, legislation aimed at ensuring that workers in critical sectors of the economy have labor protections, exempted agricultural and migrant workers.

Many migrant workers are not permanent residents, and their families work beside them on the same farm. Those who dare to organize for better working conditions and fair pay — pay that allows migrant farmworkers to support their families to be housed and purchase the food they pick — face the immediate threat of termination or deportation. When protections exist, such as requirements for rest breaks and for workers to be safeguarded from pesticide applications, employers still refuse to follow these regulations. If the farmworkers had union representation, employers would have no choice but to provide their employees with the legal protections to which they are entitled.

Along the trek, neighbors, businesses, college students and high school students, nonprofit organizations and children with their parents passed water, food and supplies to the marchers while offering their thanks and appreciation. Medical students from UC Davis provided care to peregrinos, or pilgrims, whose feet became swollen or experienced various physical injuries. Others drove their cars beside the marchers, ensuring their safety at key intersections. Unions and organizations including Workers United, United Auto Workers, International Brotherhood of the Teamsters, American Federation of State, County, and Municipal Employees, International Longshore and Warehouse Union, Service Employees International Union, NorCal Resist, Brown Issues, PSL Sacramento, Sol Collective, and the Brown Berets, and others convened at various points on the pilgrimage as well as at the rally outside the capitol on Friday. 

Woven into the sea of red UFW flags and shirts are faces from all over California, drawn to the cause for different reasons: they themselves are campesinos, they grew up working in the fields, their grandparents were braceros, they had previously walked alongside UFW in the 80s, they identify with Latin American heritage and the migrant experience, they see similarities between the struggle of their own oppressed community and that of migrant farmworkers, or they simply understand the importance of unions in protecting the rights of critical workers in agriculture.

Upon arrival at Sacramento’s Southside Park, the President of UFW Teresa Romero finally rested after the 18 miles from Elk Grove to Sacramento on Thursday, August 25. As the community rejoiced with food and music, Romero reminded everyone in attendance of the underlying need for AB 2183 to humanize agricultural workers and that, “It is time we start treating farmworkers as essential with the dignity and respect that they deserve. They put food on our tables every single day.”

“Without this work force, we would be in trouble,” Romero continued. “They work through the pandemic, they work through 110 to 115 degrees, they work through pesticides, they work through fires. What else are we going to ask from them to give them the respect that they deserve?”

As his inaction drags on, frustration surrounding Governor Gavin Newsom’s hesitation to sign AB 2183 can be felt across rural and urban communities in California. Considering his business and financial interests and a history of vetoing similar bills that could have granted farmworkers greater collective bargaining rights, Democratic Governor Newsom’s choice of inaction on this bill poses a huge roadblock in the farmworker’s movement. Governor Newsom’s winery recently purchased a Napa Vineyard for $14.5 million, and it’s clear that his own interests are opposite those of the farmworkers who want the right to unionize without intimidation. 

According to the UFW, the bill was already amended to incorporate 90% of the governor’s suggestions. The main remaining issue is the governor’s demand that farm owners be notified of the exact date the ballots for the union election were sent out. This would give the bosses time to communicate with ICE, and ultimately allow intimidation through the threat of deportation against pro-union workers and worker leaders. 

In a recent statement Newsom claimed his reasoning for wanting to notify the farm owners is for the “integrity” of the mail-in ballots, saying “we cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election.” But any evidence of UFW cheating in a union election — a totally baseless allegation — would be taken up by the National Labor Relations Board and would result in the loss of the union election.

The struggle to demand the Governor’s signature continues as 24-hour vigils outside city halls and state buildings in Sacramento, San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles began on Monday, August 29. To support farmworkers urging Governor Newsom to pass AB 2183, join a vigil in your area and sign their petition here.

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