There Will Be Heat-Related Deaths

Every year, you hear harrowing stories of farmworkers who are seriously injured in workplace injuries. Most of them are from heat-related illnesses. The LA Times had a very interesting story about this a month ago:

Even though California passed a groundbreaking law in 2005 to protect farmworkers from heat illness and death, there have been as many as 10 heat-related fatalities in the years since. Among the victims in 2008 were a pregnant teenager who died when her body temperature climbed to 108 degrees after working in a Lodi vineyard and a 37-year-old man who suffered heat stroke after loading table grapes near Bakersfield. The state has confirmed heat as the cause of six of the deaths and said it may have been a factor in the others. (LAT 8/2/09)

The fact is that during the economic meltdown and the ensuing budget crisis, worker protections get even harder to enforce. Not only are the state inspectors having to do more with less, but they are also given the heavy lean to look the other way.  Most of these workers are immigrants, who are distrustful of the government any way, so it is even harder to enforce the rules. And the results are tragic, but not that surprising. You neglect workplace safety protections, and eventually the money types will try to cut corners.  Cutting corners has major impacts.

And that is why organizing farmworkers is so important. These workers need a resource that will act as a strong intermediary between the government and themselves, an advocate that knows the situation and knows the needs of the workers.  And the United Farmworkers Union has been doing that since the days of its formation with Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.

But organizing farmworkers is an exceedingly difficult task. They don’t work in an office where it is easy to communicate with groups of workers at a time. They work long hours and attending meetings can be a burden that many won’t bear.  So, organizing is typically a one-on-one process, from worker to worker.  It takes a long time, and a long process.  

And that is where SB 789 should have come in.  It was something of an employee free choice act for farmworkers in our state. It would have ensured that workers can opt to choose a card-check process that is better suited to this one by one process.  But the Governor thought his talking points were more important than the betterment of this challenged group.

Schwarzenegger’s action on the ‘card check’ bill, SB 789 by Senate Leader Darrell Steinberg,  D-Sacramento, came a day after a national union coalition poured $1 million into a UFW-backed committee to oppose the governor’s own top legislative priority — an overhaul of California’s water system.    

Although the governor has vetoed similar measures in the past, the timing of the two events was apparently linked. And the governor’s veto escalated political tensions in the Capitol as the final days of the 2009 legislative year got under way.

Schwarzenegger said Steinberg’s bill violated workers’ rights to privacy by “altering an employee’s right to a secret ballot.” Under card check, sign-up cards are distributed to workers, and if a majority favor a union election, an election can be ordered on an expedited time table.  (Capitol Weekly 9/2/09)

Now, whether this has to do with the water fight is an issue open to interpretation. However, it certainly doesn’t have to do with the secret ballot canard. That’s just red meat for his base. This bill would have cost agrobusiness some money, and he hates when big corporations have to spend money, even if it’s for things like providing shade and water.

SB 789 will likely be back in the next session, and will definitely be back when a Democratic governor is inaugurated in 2011.