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Photos by Jocelyn Sherman

By Edgar Sanchez, Special to the UFW

SACRAMENTO, CA – Every journey has a beginning, middle and end.

The “Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Now” march ended at the state Capitol in Sacramento on Sunday, Labor Day weekend, 12 days and more than 200 miles after it began in the hot summer sun in Madera. Nearly 30 peregrinos (pilgrims) who marched the entire distance were joined by thousands of enthusiastic farm workers and other supporters on the final leg of the trek that culminated with a rally on the Capitol steps.

But there was a twist.

Originally planned as a protest, the event in Sacramento became a celebration of a major victory. More than 5,000 people, many waving the bright red flags of the United Farm Workers of America, hailed a legislative proposal offered by Gov. Jerry Brown and introduced as legislation a few days before. The Democratic governor, widely regarded as a friend of farm workers until mid-summer, was again viewed as an ally, though he was absent.

“We marched to Sacramento and Gov. Brown listened,” UFW President Arturo Rodriguez told his crowd, a good portion of which had arrived in 80 buses hailing from agricultural areas across the state.

“We took many steps over these 200-plus miles,” the UFW president continued.

“… Our biggest step forward yet” was taken with Brown’s help, after he unveiled a proposal “that will significantly advance the cause of fair treatment for farm workers,” Rodriguez said.

Only two months after he angered farm workers by vetoing an earlier bill that would have made it easier for California’s 400,000 farm workers to join unions, Brown told The Sacramento Bee newspaper that he was ready for change. He said he wanted to “speed things up” and “provide a remedy” if the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which enforces California’s landmark 1975 farm labor law, finds an employer impacted the results of a union election through unlawful employee intimidation.

All of the elements of Brown’s proposal are embedded in SB 126, a new bill introduced by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento). They include:

- Immediate certification of a union if employer election violations could have affected a unionization vote.

- An expedited process for the ALRB to certify elections. Farm workers now must wait up to two years or more after voting before they can begin negotiating a union contract with growers.

- Authority for the ALRB general counsel to go to court to reinstate farm workers who are illegally fired by employers during union election drives.

- Accelerating the process under the state’s 2002 binding mediation law, allowing mediation to produce a union contract to commence after 90 days instead of 180 days of normal bargaining.

Brown vetoed SB 104, also by Steinberg, the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, minutes before a June 28 midnight deadline, despite a 12-day vigil at the Capitol by thousands of farm workers, many of whom had campaigned for his election last year. In his veto message, Brown had said he was “not yet convinced” that SB 104 was needed.

SB 104 would have given farm workers a choice of how to vote on union representation: Through traditional on-the-job, polling place elections, or by filling out state-issued ballots in the privacy of their homes. SB 104 would not have eliminated the secret ballot; it simply would have given farm laborers a new option to make their voices heard.

This summer’s march began 57 days after SB 104 died. The marchers said the time for action was now. Among their goals: That Brown sign the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act the next time it reached his desk so farm workers could enjoy better wages and safer working conditions.

Action by the state was crucial, the marchers said, noting that at least 16 California farm workers suffered heat-related deaths since 2005, after a state regulation to prevent heat deaths was issued at the UFW’s urging. As the march began, Cal-OSHA, the state work safety agency, was investigating the deaths of at least two other farm workers, possibly from the same cause. News of a third farm worker death, possibly related to heat exposure in Reedley, in Fresno County, also surfaced.

In addition, the marchers supported a companion bill that would entitle farm workers to overtime pay after an eight-hour day or 40-hour workweek, which nearly all other California workers have enjoyed for decades.

On Sunday, Rodriguez reached back into history to indicate the governor had heard the marchers.

When UFW founder Cesar Chavez led the union’s first historic pilgrimage to Sacramento 45 years ago, he talked about how marching is ‘very powerful,’ Rodriguez said.

He observed that Chavez, who died in 1993, described the 1966 march as “a powerful weapon, a powerful organizing tool.”

At the same time, Chavez said that marching “has a powerful influence on those who participate,” Rodriguez said.

Quoting Chavez, Rodriguez added: “There is this anticipation. You have a definite starting place … and goal. You’re moving, making progress every step. That’s very comforting to people. It gives a great sense of calm, because it’s peaceable work. You can think much better, and you get a lot of courage. Then there’s the sense of personal sacrifice …”

Rodriguez noted that the UFW has fought for five years “for reform of the (farm labor) law,” at times by marching.

“Yet these last five years have been about more than a campaign for a single law,” he said. “It has been a struggle to win the fair treatment for farm workers that other workers in California won decades ago.

“Today the pilgrimage ends, but the struggle continues,” he stated. “…With these new tools we are about to win, let us continue working hard to build our union …”

Sen. Steinberg thanked the governor “for rolling up his sleeves and not walking away.”

“We will never rest until all workers are accorded an opportunity for a better life,” Steinberg told the audience.

Steinberg’s new bill is expected to be approved by the Legislature before it adjourns on Sept. 9. Gov. Brown will then have 30 days to sign, veto or let it become law without his signature. Brown is committed to signing it.

The UFW will pursue the overtime bill for farm workers next year.

Like other UFW marches before it, the latest pilgrimage “produced an historic breakthrough in the long crusade for fair treatment for farm workers,” Paul F. Chavez, son of Cesar Chavez, reminded the huge gathering.

The “legislation from the governor promises to give farm workers important new tools to win the union contracts they so desperately need and want,” Chavez said.

“We thank the lawmakers who have authored and fought for the legislation.” he said. “But we are grateful first and foremost to the farm workers without whose sacrifice during this march and over the last five years this victory would not have happened.”

Chavez, president of the Cesar Chavez Foundation, marched along with two of his children the last two days of the pilgrimage, including Sunday’s 1.5-mile walk from Sacramento’s Southside Park, facing Our Lady of Guadalupe Catholic Church, from which Cesar Chavez and the marchers took off on the last day of that first pilgrimage on Easter Sunday 1966.

The rally took on a more somber tone when Becky Chavez spoke on the North steps of the Capitol – a few feet from where her father, Richard Chavez, gave his final speech on June 24, pressing Gov. Brown to sign the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act.

Richard Chavez, who helped his older brother Cesar build the UFW, died in Bakersfield on July 27 from complications after surgery. He was 81.

“Even in retirement, my dad never stopped supporting the union and the movement he loved,” Becky Chavez said. “Despite a bad cold, he traveled 250 miles to Sacramento from his home in Keene, Kern County, to join the vigil by farm workers at the Capitol…on a hot day last June.

“…I know if he had lived, my father would be with us here today,” she said, her voice breaking. “I know the brothers Richard Chavez and Cesar Chavez are here today in spirit.”

Also speaking was a pained Francisco Estrada, whose wife, Lilia, 43, died on Aug. 20, a day after she collapsed while toiling in extreme heat at a Reedley vineyard. The cause of her death, witnessed by several family members who worked with her, hasn’t been determined.

“Sincerely, I can’t find the words to express what I feel now. I’ve been left without a wife, with my two sons,” said Estrada, who turned 43 Monday (Labor Day). “That’s why we are here, to ask the governor to sign the law that would give us better working conditions. Excuse me, but I can’t speak too much. Thank you.”

Faustino Estrada, Lilia Estrada’s brother-in-law, sounded an alarm, telling the crowd:

“I want to alert the community that if you’re working with your family and you see symptoms of [heat stroke], try to do something as soon as possible. The experience we just went through is very sad because [we were] very desperate for them (the company foremen) to do something, and they said she was okay. They took a long time [35 to 40 minutes] to call the ambulance.”

The next speaker, Lodi farm worker Doroteo Jimenez, expressed his condolences to the Estradas, relating how his niece, Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, met a similar fate.

The pregnant 17-year-old collapsed of heat stroke in a vineyard east of Stockton on May 14, 2008. Her supervisors didn’t even bother to call for medical aide, which is required under California’s 2005 heat regulation. She was transported by co-workers to a Lodi clinic, then transferred by ambulance to a hospital, where she died on May 16, 2008.

Jimenez, who marched for a day from the Manteca area to Stockton during the halfway point of the pilgrimage, called for unity “so we can have better working conditions in the fields.”

Farm workers will never be alone in their battle for justice, vowed Yvonne Walker, president of Service Employees International Union Local 1000 in Sacramento, whose members include 95,000 state workers.

“We will not rest until there is true justice in the fields for all workers,” she told the crowd, referring to SEIU members who work for the state. “The cost is too high when we lose even one worker to inhuman conditions.”

For Odilia Chavez, who marched from her Madera home to Sacramento, the sight of the Capitol dome Sunday morning was truly breathtaking.

“I was so happy that we finally reached the Capitol,” she said.

The long-distance pilgrims were usually accompanied by supporters who marched a few blocks or a few miles, she said.

“But today, I wanted to say, ‘Wow! I can’t believe that thousands are marching with us!’ It was very powerful,” she said, echoing Cesar Chavez’s words about that first march 45 years ago.


Edgar Sanchez is a former news reporter for The Palm Beach Post and The Sacramento Bee.