UFW marches for relevancy

SACRAMENTO -- The death watch has been haunting the United Farm Workers ever since the 1970s when the Teamsters Union delivered a near-fatal blow by signing sweetheart contracts with growers.

Since then, the union's membership has dropped from a high of 40,000 in its heyday to about 5,000 today.

Watchers expected the union to wither away when Govs. George Deukmejian and Pete Wilson packed the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board with grower-friendly appointees, and again when founder César E. Chávez died in 1993.

The union, now led by Chávez's son-in-law Arturo S. Rodríguez, has survived ... barely.

That is why legislation designed to allow the union to organizer farm laborers through a check card signoff was deemed crucial if the union is to celebrate its 50th anniversary in high style next year. The bill, SB 104, was vetoed two months ago by Gov. Jerry Brown, a longtime UFW ally who helped create the ALRB to settle labor disputes.

Though deeply disappointed with Brown's veto, Rodríguez kept communications open with the governor, and the union launched a 13-day, 200-mile march from Madera to the state Capitol to pressure Brown to sign SB 126, a similar bill.

A couple of days before the marchers were scheduled to set foot on the Capitol grounds, Brown reached a compromise with state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and the union on legislation that offers farmworkers greater protection within existing law.

The bill, SB 126, is expected to pass. It would allow the ALRB to certify a union when it finds grower misconduct in elections, expands the use of injunctions in disputes, and, shortens the timeline for binding mediation.

Addressing thousands of farmworkers, union representatives and their supporters last Sunday at the state Capitol, Rodríguez credited the march for getting Brown to listen.

"We marched to Sacramento and Gov. Brown listened," said Rodríguez. "We took many steps over these 200 miles. Gov. Brown helped us take our biggest step forward yet by offering his own proposal in legislation by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg that will significantly advance the cause of fair treatment for famworkers."

Rodríguez and the union claim current laws designed to protect farmworkers from the heat and bad working conditions are routinely overlooked by the state. A union, they say, will ensure compliance.

"When we convert the anger we so rightly feel into nonviolent struggle, we overcome the discrimination and mistreatment at the hands of the employers by asserting the strength and power that are ours when we unite together," said Rodríguez.

Steinberg, who addressed the rally, identified the 13-day marchers -- including Carolina Olguín, 80, Josefina Flores, 82, and Adán Ramírez, who will be 83 on Sept. 27 -- with the work of Chávez, Martin Luther King Jr., and Mohatma Gandhi.

"Your struggle is every bit as inspirational as their's was," said Steinberg, who also mentioned Brown's ability to reach a compromise on the bill.

"We give thanks to Gov. Brown for rolling up his sleeves and not walking away," he said.

Prior to the march from Southside Park about a mile away from the Capitol, Rodríguez said "every one of the marchers has a story." Those who marched the entire way had a small wooden cross with the dates of the march -- 9/23/11 and 9/4/11 -- separated by the black UFW eagle.

Among those who joined the march were Jesús Valenzuela Félix, 24, of Salinas, and Odilia Chávez, a 38-year-old single mother of three from Madera.

In a significant way, Valenzuela and Chávez represent the UFW's future. Sunday, right behind the lead marchers was Roberto Bustos, the man in charge of the 1966 UFW march from Delano to Sacramento. Bustos carried a frame holding two photos of that march.

This time, it was Valenzuela, the college-educated son of migrant farmworkers from Culiacán, México, who was in charge of logistics for the march.

"My mother worked in the fields (in Culiacán) where there was no union," said Valenzuela, assistant to the UFW secretary-treasurer in the Salinas area.

Valenzuela learned about Chávez and the union in Coachella public schools. After graduating from UC San Diego with a degree in sociology, Valenzuela returned to Coachella to work for Assemblymember Manuel Pérez before beginning his work with the union 4½ months ago.

The new legislation, said Valenzuela, will level the field for farmworkers who see no effort to enforce current laws.

"The union will get stronger and it will grow," said Valenzuela.

Chávez, who is originally from Santiago Yosondoa, Oaxaca, is much newer to the union. In the midst of the UFW effort to get Brown to sign the original bill, Chávez (no relation to the UFW founder) decided to help.

After picking grapes, apricots, blueberries and other crops for 12 years, Chávez said she has seen the struggles that farmworkers suffer. Becoming a UFW member, she said, will lead to many benefits, including a health plan and vacation.

"The laws will now be enforced," said Chávez.