Newsom’s signing of farmworker bill shows clout of Latinos

It turns out “Si se puede” is not just a battle cry. It’s a threat.

Governor Gavin Newsom just learned that the hard way.

On Wednesday afternoon, after a glorious morning in which Newsom signed a slew of important legislation to break the California deadlock on affordable housing, word leaked that he was also drafting Assembly Bill 2183, a United States measure would farm workers should make it easier for the workers in our fields to form a union.

It’s a law that Newsom has campaigned vehemently for months, promising to veto if it reaches his desk. But for weeks since it actually landed in his lap, it has turned into a political nightmare.

The Capitol staircase has become home to dozens of farm workers who are holding a vigil to demand his signature. President Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris made public statements to support this, as did Newsom’s political mentor Nancy Pelosi. Rage Against the Machine’s Tom Morello traveled to Sacramento to sing “This Land Is Your Land” with union members.

The farmhands have danced, marched, dined and interviewed non-stop – aided by big names and a great love of a profession that is as honored as it is abused in this state.

At the same time, Newsom helped dig his own hole by prosecuting Florida Gov. Ron DeSantis for his despicable act of flying migrants to Martha’s Vineyard. Newsom rightly spoke out against using vulnerable people for political points — only to be pushed around for not standing up for vulnerable migrants in his own state.

That was the nail on the coffin for his opposition to farm labor legislation. Although he most definitely is not run for presidentvetoing this bill would have been both a topic of conversation and a real problem within the labor movement if he made such a run.

Why Newsom was so vehemently opposed to the legislation has always been somewhat unclear. Officially, it has been argued that he is concerned that the UFW’s proposal may have given the organization too much time and leeway – months and months – to collect signatures from workers who may have moved to other employers by then. The last-minute agreement to sign the bill covers changes to be made by replacing the legislation in the next term, including corrections giving the Agricultural Labor Relations Board more power over the new system and limiting the number of Union action that may occur The bill’s five-year lifespan before its provisions are due for renewal.

Unofficially, some felt that Newsom, as a winery owner, was too close to the growers and their interests. They pointed out that his PlumpJack brand, administered in a blind trust during Newsom’s tenure, expanded to buy another winery, even though farm workers marched 335 miles to the Capitol to fight his promised veto.

Against this background, the claim by some was justified – to some extent – that the UFW was a weak union that had not even organized a dance dinner for decades.

It was likely that this perception that UFW was small and run-down led Newsom to believe that the law could be vetoed.

When this struggle began, it may have been sound political calculus that the union made famous decades ago by Dolores Huerta and Cesar Chavez was a relic – revered but irrelevant. Its membership had fallen to a few thousand, its organizing record is poor, and the farming industry had changed to rely more and more on undocumented workers who migrate and are often too vulnerable to risk upsetting an employer, by signing a union card. The threat of deportation for those fighting their farm bosses is real and ever-present.

But that was a major misinterpretation of who and what the farm workers in California are. I’m not saying that 20/20 after the fact, now that Newsom has been pushed into a political corner and the ink is drying. The warning signs were large and blinking.

In July, after 16 years on its own, the UFW rejoined the union federation known as the California Labor Federation. UFW leaders took the stage with Lorena Gonzalez, the daughter of a farm hand and former lawmaker, as she took over leadership of this organization and vowed that any union would fight with them.

Just days ago, a who’s who of Latino activists and lawmakers wrote a letter to Newsom asking for his signature.

“For a generation of Latino leaders, there is no struggle more personal, inspirational or urgent than that of the farmhands,” the letter reads from more than two dozen prominent Latinos. “Most of us are here because our parents or grandparents came to this country to work in the fields.”

How many in California can understand that, even if their parents worked in factories or restaurants instead of in the fields? My own father is a South Asian immigrant, different continent, different struggles. But I feel this deep, personal and urgent call to help others who come here willing to work and fight for something better.

The fact that our governor failed to recognize the power of this attraction for so many Californians is a blind spot. The Democratic Party and Newsom have long been criticized for taking Latino voting for granted. The handling of this bill shows a lack of understanding that the politics of all immigrants, beyond party or even religion, is a politics of hope – that the children of immigrants will not work in the fields and that their children will be the ones who sign bills.

For immigrants, failure always meant more than personal loss. It’s a generational loss that people who risked everything to be here don’t want to endure.

That’s why “Si se puede” never had the luxury of taking care of wishes and longings.

It was always a promise. And a warning. Newsom’s signing of farmworker bill shows clout of Latinos

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