It Is Time to End Discrimination Against Hard Working Latino Farm Workers

According to the Capitol Alert, Senator Florez is reporting the Governor plans to veto legislation that would give workers on California farms the same overtime pay standards as most labor forces.  Below is an op-ed by Senate President pro Tem Darrell Steinberg on this significant civil rights related measure and why the Governor should sign it.    

It Is Time to End Discrimination Against

Hard Working Latino Farm Workers

By Senator Darrell Steinberg

Many Californians, including myself, are part of the growing chorus condemning Arizona’s show me your papers law.  A CNN poll this week found that three out of four Hispanic-Americans fear that it will result in discrimination and racial profiling.  No wonder.  The Arizona law requires law enforcement officers to detain and sometimes arrest people they “suspect” of being undocumented.   When someone is stopped it will be based on the color of their skin.  And if they can’t produce proof of citizenship on the spot they will be arrested.  

Once you step outside your home, can you prove your citizenship?  I can’t.  

But I wonder how many Californians are aware that our state has its own controversy over a law which discriminates against Latinos.  To put it simply, California’s law provides standard overtime pay to almost every private employee except for one group – farm workers, among the hardest working Californians.   And predominantly Latino.  Unlike other private workers they are denied standard overtime pay.  This is unjust.  And it is discriminatory.

I have joined Senate Majority Leader Dean Florez who is leading our effort to abolish the farm worker overtime discrimination law.  The Legislature passed Senator Florez’s SB 1121 this year.  But this long overdue reform will not become law without the signature of Governor Schwarzenegger, who has until August 2, to make his decision.  

There are historical connections between all discriminatory policies like the Arizona and California laws – they can be traced back to a time when institutional racism was openly endorsed by political leaders and even the courts.

The origins of excluding farm workers from the overtime law trace back to the segregated south during the Great Depression.

In the 1930’s an important part of the New Deal was the establishment of fair employment practices for American workers, including overtime pay.  But Congress was forced to compromise with powerful southern legislators who argued that fair labor practices for rural black workers would destroy their plantation system of agriculture.  

What did they mean by their “plantation system of agriculture?”  Everyone knew what they meant.  Eight out of ten plantation workers were African-American.  The southern system was almost entirely dependent upon a cheap supply of African-American labor.  Mistreated black workers in the cotton belt were essential to the traditional rural plantation system.

The southern legislators negotiating to exempt farm workers from new fair labor laws were not about to give up this oppressive system.  In the end, the southern employers won and farm workers were denied overtime pay.    

One Florida Congressman at the time was completely candid.  Representative J. Mark Wilcox bluntly stated in the Congressional Record that “there has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor.”  He went on to observe “you cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it.”  Others warned that overtime premiums would actually harm the minority workers themselves because employers would be forced to cut back hours.  

In 2010 California farmers are by no means racist or motivated by ethnic prejudice.  However, the arguments against correcting the discrimination in the existing overtime law are reminiscent of the old arguments.  I have heard, for instance, that thousands of Latino workers will have their hours cut if we pay them overtime.  

One cable show host asked me recently if I could point to the exact words in the Arizona law that mandated racial profiling – as if it did not matter what impact the law would have so long as the offensive words did not appear in the text.  Neither does California’s overtime law contain explicit language about ethnicity.  

But we all know who is affected.  The Governor should do the right thing and sign SB 1121 into law.