Skelton: Newsom should sign California farmworker union bill

In 1966, Governor Pat Brown made a politically ignorant mistake with Cesar Chavez’s farm workers’ union. This year, Gov. Gavin Newsom repeated the mistake. Brown redeemed himself. Newsom probably won’t.

Both snubbed the union leader and went on a family vacation.

On a personal level, nobody can be accused of choosing family over a union leader.

But as most of us know—and a governor should—we sometimes have to reluctantly put work ahead of family pleasure. That’s the price of a career – and certainly one in top politics.

A great governor who was habitually bumpy politically, Democrat Brown further tarnished his image when he lost a year-long re-election to Republican actor Ronald Reagan for a third term in a landslide.

Brown’s mistake came at the end of an epic 300-mile march by farm workers up the San Joaquin Valley, led by Chavez, from the fledgling union’s headquarters in Delano to the state capitol. The workers sought recognition and respect. Their ranks had grown to several thousand by the time they reached Capitol Park on Easter Sunday.

I covered protesters entering the capital a street along the Sacramento River and remembered that Chavez was treated like the second coming of Jesus Christ. The mood was consistent with the mid-1960s, an era of great societal upheaval with historic civil rights activism and anti-Vietnam War protests.

The struggle for union representation of rural workers was a cause embraced by many citizens regardless of their socio-economic status.

But Brown didn’t seem to get it.

Chavez had asked for a symbolic public meeting with the Liberal governor. Brown responded that he had a previous commitment — having a fun Easter with his family at Frank Sinatra’s Palm Springs home.

A weekend with Sinatra at his resort-like property — at the height of the singer’s fame — would have been hard to cancel. And Brown wouldn’t do it, although son Jerry, the future governor, argued that he should be in Sacramento with Chavez.

Brown offered to meet Chavez on Saturday or Monday—just not Easter Sunday—but the union leader declined.

“He would meet on his terms or not at all. Chavez thrived on having a good enemy, and the governor’s absence only made the rally stronger,” wrote journalist Miriam Pawel in her book The Browns of California.

She also wrote a Chavez biography, The Crusades of Cesar Chavez.

Brown later atoned by persuading a large producer in the San Joaquin Valley to allow a union representative election. The union had urged consumers to boycott the grower’s table grapes. The governor appointed a special mediator to establish ground rules.

“Victory in the first secret ballot for agricultural workers was a huge boost for Chávez and the credibility of the union,” Pawel wrote.

“But the lasting image was of a governor relaxing in Palm Springs while pilgrims gathered outside his office in the Capitol.”

Fast forward 56 years to a different Easter season. Teresa Romero, President of the United Farm Workers Union, requested a meeting with Newsom on Cesar Chavez Day, March 31. It would be a beautiful tribute to the legendary union leader who died in 1993 at the age of 66.

But it didn’t fit into Newsom’s schedule. That day he traveled to Central and South America for a spring break vacation with his family.

The governor might have made up for it by meeting with union leaders – including legendary 92-year-old UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta – on Friday. On that day, the farm workers completed a repeat of their historic 1966 march from Delano to the Capitol. It was officially California Farmworker Appreciation Day.

Newsom declined the meeting. He had other businesses out of town.

This time, the aim of the rural workers was to push the passage of a bill that would make it easier for them to vote in union elections.

AB 2183 by Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley) would allow workers to vote by mail just as the rest of us are allowed to vote in regular elections.

The bill passed overwhelmingly by both houses on Monday — the Assembly by 55 to 18 and the Senate by 26 to 10 — and was sent to the governor.

Newsom doesn’t sound like he’s making amends. He vetoed a similar bill last year and has indicated he will kill the latest version as well.

We haven’t heard a good explanation for this. The governor’s office hasn’t said a peep since the measure came in.

Previously, assistant governors said the ballots sent through the mail were not secure.

The governor “cannot support an untested mail-in voting process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the voting,” said spokeswoman Erin Mellon.

But that was fixed in amendments. The ballots would be mailed and collected by the State Agency for Agricultural Labor Relations.

Newsom’s real concern is that the law does not allow for immediate notification of growers when workers attempt to organize, Stone and UFW officials say.

The union says it will not agree to this because there is a history of some growers or contractors threatening undocumented union supporters with deportation.

“Our farm workers should not be intimidated or expelled for choosing to speak out about working conditions,” said Senator Maria Elena Durazo (D-Los Angeles), a former union leader who grew up in a family of farm workers.

She is right. But growers should also be informed when their staff are trying to organize themselves.

Newsom must meet with the UFW leader and find a way to sign the law. Don’t wait for another march. Skelton: Newsom should sign California farmworker union bill

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