California farmworkers, Lorena Gonzalez are making history

Former MP Lorena Gonzalez takes over as head of the California Labor Federation on Wednesday, and she drops a surprise meant to show her leadership won’t be business as usual: she’s bringing the farm workers’ union with her.

After about 16 years of being mostly on their own, with their fortunes declining, the United Farm Workers joins the Fed, the “union union” that acts as the umbrella for the California labor movement and exerts collective influence in elections and elections and Money uses the Capitol.

It may sound like insider baseball, but it’s undoubtedly a moment in the history of workers’ rights in the Golden State that has long been far from golden for our most defenseless wage earners — those who pick crops, fry burgers and stuff thousands of jobs in the service and gig industries, which offer as little in wages as in job rights.

As Gonzalez told me Monday, two days before he became the first woman and the first person of color to head the Fed, joining the farmhands is a message: “We’re going to ruffle some feathers, and you’re going to get no apologies.”

McDonald’s, Amazon, Big Ag, Governor Gavin Newsom – she talks to you. But I’ll get to that.

It’s also a message that California hopes to ride the new wave of jobs sweeping the country, increasingly led by young people of color and women. Baristas, warehouse workers, fast-food cashiers and chefs — we’ve all heard the stories of the post-pandemic fatigue and frustration that have prompted these low-wage workers to seek the power of collective bargaining and the great effort companies are making to succeed impede.

In recent months, union representation petitions to the National Labor Relations Board have skyrocketed by 56% – nearly 2,000 workplaces trying to unionize. Over the same period, claims of unfair labor practices have increased by 14.5% – from 11,451 to 13,106, according to an NLRB official. This is a fight for a future where a single job actually pays the bills.

But like farm workers, these hopeful union members, many immigrants, are often people whom the old guard of the labor movement — dominated by bourgeois groups that include teachers, government employees, nurses and others — have failed to absorb.

Gonzalez, the daughter of a farm hand and a nurse, has been in her corner for a long time and has made her legislative career supporting workers on the fringes of stability. She lobbied for a bill to raise the minimum wage – an initiative backed by one of the most diverse unions, the Service Employees International Union, and Fight for $15, a grassroots coalition of fast-food workers.

With Assembly Bill 5, she also forced so-called gig companies to treat their employees as employees. That law remains controversial, and Gonzalez still supports it with the combative, uncompromising style that made her a force of nature under the Capitol dome.

When Gonzalez called UFW President Teresa Romero and asked her to put farm workers back in their folds, “I had no concerns,” said Romero, herself the first Latina and first immigrant in the United States to run a national union. “She has never overlooked the most vulnerable workers.”

It may come as a surprise to many that despite everything, California farm workers have long stood on the fringes of the mainstream labor movement “Si Se Puede”, first spoken by Dolores Huerta, a ubiquitous slogan at rallies.

While Huerta and Cesar Chavez are two of unionism’s most celebrated icons, the UFW, the union they co-founded, has been losing membership and political power for years (although it still far exceeds its weight in the Capitol, where Latino representation has grown). ). She left the Fed around 2006, although neither Romero nor Gonzalez could figure out why. For a while, her most loyal ally seemed to be an internet cat named Jorts.

The UFW has dwindled to fewer than 7,000 members by most counts and suffered an ugly legislature defeat last fall when Newsom vetoed a bill that would have allowed mail-in ballots for his union campaigns.

This bill came in response to a court ruling that effectively evicted union organizers from private farms, making it more difficult to organize or hold elections; Most farm workers are undocumented, and turning up on the boss’s land to vote for a union can seem like a real risk. The veto of the law was a major blow to a union already struggling to stay on its feet.

UFW responded by marching from the French Laundry restaurant in Napa, where Newsom notoriously dined during the pandemic lockdown, to his PlumpJack Winery. By the time they arrived, he had left the state for a family vacation, and they had made a dramatic point about elitism.

YOUNTVILLE, CALIFORNIA. - Sept 25 February 2021 - Farm workers in front of the French laundry. (Jean Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

Farm workers rally on September 25, 2021 in front of the French Laundry in Yountville, California, the high-end restaurant where Gov. Gavin Newsom was caught eating without a mask at a party during the pandemic.

(Jean Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

UFW reintroduced the proposal (Assembly Bill 2183) this year with its author, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), but by all reports, ties between the governor and farm workers have not fully thawed, and his signature is not Certainty – although his office informed me on Tuesday that he is ready to work on the proposal.

Enter Lorena.

As Gonzalez announces Wednesday that the UFW will rejoin the Fed, she is reminded that she has no fear of the governor, who has often been an “enemy” during her time in the legislature. And she loves a fair fight.

She told me that the Farm Workers Act will become a priority piece of legislation for the Fed, which means it gets all the attention and support it can muster — and potentially puts it up against the governor in one of its first fights.

It’s a statement likely to be well received by the union’s young hopefuls, who want and need to empower it to keep the Fed relevant and powerful in a new era. We all know farm workers deserve better treatment than we get, especially in these extraordinary days when heat, wildfires, inflation and far-right anti-immigrant attacks make a harsh life even harder.

From day one, Gonzalez has made it clear what she stands for, who she stands for and how far she will go. It’s the same kind of intrusive swagger Newsom used recently when he ran ads against Republican Gov. Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott — an assertiveness young workers and young Democrats hunger for but most politicians and political leaders have sorely absent.

But assertiveness has never been an issue for Gonzalez.

“I’m tired of being told to seek consensus and ‘middle ground’ with a corporate class that sees workers as disposable and Wall Street as a god. I’m tired of the left proud of moral superiority while we’re losing everything. And I’m bloody sick of being told to watch my language,” she recently wrote on Twitter, a medium she uses often.

“Maybe if we hadn’t been so damn polite, smart and sensible, we wouldn’t be facing the never-ending losing battle today,” she continued. “We can still save our country. Stop clutching your pearls.” California farmworkers, Lorena Gonzalez are making history

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