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Opinion | The Sad Lesson From California



After more than a decade of contentious debate, New York has passed a law that entitles farmworkers to basic rights that most workers take for granted — the right to earn overtime, have a day off, collect unemployment insurance and join a union. The law corrects injustices that date back to the exclusion of farmworkers and domestics from the National Labor Relations Act, in an effort to win Southern votes by exempting the largely black work forces.

Yet this victory may prove to be largely symbolic. That is the sad lesson from California, which has had on the books for more than 40 years a farmworker statute hailed as the most pro-labor law in the country. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 grants farmworkers the right to unionize, sets up procedures for speedy elections, allows union organizers access to growers’ fields and provides remedies for workers who are unjustly fired or penalized, including back pay.

But today, the board that administers the law is virtually moribund; it has not met in public since January. For most of the year it has lacked a quorum. And nobody seems to notice. Certainly not farmworkers, an overwhelmingly undocumented work force whose wages and conditions are for the most part arguably no better than decades ago.

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The New York law, which Gov. Andrew Cuomo has endorsed, is a milestone, not to be minimized. But to deliver on the law’s promise will require effective grass-roots organizing in the fields.

That was the strength behind the California law, which in its early years became a vehicle to educate and enrich a generation of farmworkers who learned the power of organized labor. It was adopted at the height of the United Farm Workers’ movement, after years of strikes, boycotts and civil disobedience created sufficient pressure that the newly elected governor, Jerry Brown, could broker a deal. In elections in the first months after the law took effect, almost 50,000 farmworkers voted, many for the first time in their lives.

Yet within a decade, the union activity in the fields all but disappeared, resurfacing sporadically but never as a significant force.

“Most workers living in this economy in agriculture don’t even know about our law,” William Gould, the chair of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, told a crowd gathered in 2015 to mark the 40th anniversary of the law. “Don’t have the slightest clue about what the board is and what the content of the statute is and what the remedies are that we can bring to bear for violations.”

The awkward anniversary celebration was more melancholy than festive. The union that had once represented the best hope for farmworkers had long ago stopped organizing. The governor who had used all his political capital to negotiate the landmark law was governor again. But this time no amount of political pressure could change the dismal reality in the fields.

Mr. Gould, an eminent labor lawyer who once chaired the National Labor Relations Board, spoke of farmworkers sleeping in their cars, and warned that the lack of activity in no way suggested rosy conditions. The governor agreed. “The toil and the suffering and the injustice that gave rise to the law exist every day in this state,” Mr. Brown said. “We are still at a very serious point where the people who pick our food, are they getting the dignity and the compensation and the quality of life worthy of their contribution to what we’re all enjoying? And I have to say the answer is pretty clearly no.”

The most optimistic sentiment he could muster about the law that once seemed destined to be a major part of his legacy was to note its unique nature, adding, “It’s there as a reality and an ever-present promise of things to come.”

In his resignation letter two years later, Mr. Gould called the law “irrelevant to farmworkers,” noting that 99 percent were not unionized and only one election petition had come before the board during his three-year tenure.

That was before the current crippling fear took hold of a largely undocumented work force. The vast majority are at the mercy of labor contractors, middle men whose exploitation was a major impetus for the union Cesar Chavez created. How many farmworkers in this situation will protest if they are cheated out of pay, fired for raising safety concerns or switched midweek to a different farm to circumvent the overtime laws?

The strongest model for farmworkers today is in Florida, where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved major gains — not through state law but through years of patient, creative organizing that produced a framework to improve wages and working conditions, with effective enforcement. The organization is led by workers, with broad-based support, using many of the techniques pioneered by the United Farm Workers in its heyday.

Jerry Cohen, who helped devise the California law as counsel for the U.F.W., knew better than most the strength of what he called the best labor law in America. He also knew its weakness. “The law is only a tool,” Mr. Cohen often said.

Let’s hope New Yorkers find a way to use it more effectively than Californians.

Miriam Pawel is the author of “The Browns of California: The Family Dynasty That Transformed a State and Shaped a Nation” and a contributing opinion writer.

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