From the packing plant stun line to verdant fields much of the American food system is serviced by a largely unappreciated working class. The wages and working conditions of those who toil in some of the nation's most dangerous and thankless jobs continue to lag. Adjusted for inflation, real wages for farm workers have decreased by 5% over the last decade.
While some workers have attempted to leverage their numbers into power the results have been modest at best. Federal labor law excludes farm workers from many of the rights and legal protections to organize and collectively bargain. However, in California there is legislation that if enacted, could dramatically amplify the power of farm workers and the unions that represent them.
More than two weeks ago, a few members of the United Farm Workers Union began a march in the California's Central Valley to encourage Democratic Governor Gray Davis to sign a bill amending the 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The amendment allows a state panel to settle disputes between growers and laborers through binding arbitration when contract negotiations reach an impasse. Earlier this week, the number of marchers swelled to several thousand as supporters of the landmark legislation finished the 165-mile trek on the steps of the capitol in Sacramento.
On one side of the issue are farm laborers, many earning less than 10-thousand dollars per year, who claim growers drag out contract negotiations. On the other side are growers who believe the 1975 law sufficiently protects farm laborers because any contract impasse can be brought before a judge. Further, the growers say the amendment would unfairly single them out with a potentially punitive rule that could put them out of business.
Governor Davis has yet to make a decision on whether or not he will sign the bill.