This summer in California, as legions of migrants culled America’s bounty from sun-scorched fields, Governor Jerry Brown put the right to unionize even further out of their reach. Brown’s decision to veto a controversial bill to provide streamlined card-check voting for farmworkers trying to form unions reflected Brown’s drift to the right since his first term as governor, when he signed the landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act giving farmworkers unprecedented collective-bargaining rights.
Activists expressed outrage, and Brown later proposed more moderate reforms for farm labor rules. But the failure of the campaign for card-check, a voting system that could help union organizers overcome resistance from employers, reflected deeper setbacks in the farmworkers’ movement since César Chávez led grape boycotts that drew thousands into the United Farm Workers union. Forty years later, card-check advocates sought to build public support by linking weak union protections to the tragedy of Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, a pregnant teen who had died in the sweltering grape fields—a case that echoed what the media and public condemned as America’s “ Harvest of Shame” during the Civil Rights Era. Policymakers’ tepid response today suggests that the industry’s abuses have become even more entrenched in an increasingly corporatized food system, fueled by a ruthlessly exploited migrant labor force.
But while the traditional farm labor movement may have lost ground, other groups have surfaced on the horizon to push beyond the bounds of traditional unions, on and off the farm. Read the rest of this entry →