Workplace protections for farmworkers a historic achievement

By JENNIFER MUIR BEUTHIN, Contributing Columnist

Most of us learned in school that Americans can count on job protections like the 40-hour work week, maternity leave and weekends because working people stood together to fight for those rights as part of their unions.

But as union membership declined, fewer American kids grew up knowing the difference a union has made directly in their family’s lives beyond these historic achievements. Even though more than 2.1 million workers work in coalition to advocate for fair wages and safe working conditions for all Californians, there are still too many who have not experienced the security of standing together with coworkers to speak out about injustices or advocate for fairness on their own jobs.

And without that direct knowledge, it’s much easier to believe the corporate-backed political messaging that we hear so often aimed at vilifying union workers, or convincing Americans that unions are obsolete.

To those who have been moved by those messages, I would ask you to consider the historic achievement this week for farmworkers and domestic workers.

For more than 75 years, farmworkers have been subject to a different set of laws and workplace protections than the rest of us. While most Californians receive overtime pay when they work more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week, a loophole in the law blocked workers who pick our fruits and vegetables from being paid overtime until they worked 10 hours a day or 60 hours a week.

Why? Because corporate farmers convinced politicians their profits were more important than fairness. And so for years, these people who toiled in the field to put food on the table for all of our families were forced to do more than the rest of us to put food on the table for their own.

Meanwhile, it wasn’t until 2014 that nannies, home health care aids and other personal attendants caring for the disabled and elderly achieved workplace protections, including overtime pay.

But those protections were set to expire in January 2017, leaving those people who work every day in private homes to care for children, the elderly and disabled vulnerable themselves.

These unfair exceptions have been allowed to exist for so long because the workers who perform these jobs are already marginalized, among the lowest paid, and their employers knew that alone, they wouldn’t have the money or tools necessary to fight back.

Yet, they did fight back. By standing together in their unions, using their strength in numbers to counter the mountain of dollars they were up against, these workers repeatedly stood up and advocated for fairness. Workers across the state of California stood with them.

This year Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzales took up the farmworker cause. For domestic workers, Sen. Connie Leyva carried the torch. Both of these women are tireless fighters for working people. Both have deep roots in the labor movement – Leyva was the former president of the California Labor Federation, and Gonzales ran the San Diego Labor Council.

Most importantly, both have inspired others to make a difference – from the countless workers who have found voices through their leadership to their colleagues in Sacramento who ultimately came together and voted for fairness for farmworkers and domestic workers.

This week, Gov. Jerry Brown signed both bills, giving these workers the fairness they deserve.

This historic achievement would never have happened if those who were impacted didn’t have the right to stand together in their unions – a right that so many in our grandparents’ generation fought – and some even died – to secure.

Jennifer Muir Beuthin is general manager of the Orange County Employees Association.

Publication Date: September 16, 2016