Opinion: How does the UFW still have influence in Sacramento?

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Opinion: How does the UFW still have influence in Sacramento?

By Western Growers CEO Tom Nassif

This article originally appeared on Nassif's Notes and has been re-published with Western Growers' consent.

Two recent court judgments against the United Farm Workers (UFW) have floated past most of the news media, and apparently our elected lawmakers in Sacramento, without a hint of irony.

In March, the Monterey County Superior Court awarded more than US$1.1 million in penalties and unpaid wages against the UFW stemming from a class action claim that the union misclassified as “exempt” 23 of its own employees and failed to pay them overtime or let them take lunch breaks.

And just last month, the same court ruled that the UFW must pay another nearly US$800,000 in attorney fees that were incurred by the plaintiff during the two years of litigation.

The irony is obvious, but should be stated: A union that justifies its political agenda by perpetuating myths about farmers mistreating their employees, has been found guilty of mistreating its own union employees by engaging in what amounts to wage theft.

The responses from Democratic legislators in Sacramento? Nada. Zip. Zero. Zilch.

These are some of the same legislators who slandered California farmers last year in pressuring their colleagues – many of whom had voted once before to block what they knew to be a bad piece of legislation – to vote for the overtime bill, AB 1066. They parroted the UFW’s tired rhetoric and elevated its stature far beyond the reality of a union that represents just 7,000 dues-paying members, or 1% of California farmworkers; a union that has had more farmworkers vote against it than for it for many years.

Senate President Pro Tempore Kevin de León evinced no shame when, on the floor of the state Senate, he said: “The great pride that we share in California’s world-renowned agriculture industry is tempered by the shameful plight of the farmworker today.”

De León said farmworkers are “among the least paid and most exploited in our nation,” and that there are “a lot of farmworkers who don’t even receive the minimum wage.” He alleged that their working conditions are “abysmal,” their housing “substandard,” and their healthcare “nonexistent.” Multiple times, he accused agricultural employers of “often” using child labor.

So, how is it that this union-in-name-only, that cheats workers out of wages, still has such outsized influence in Sacramento?

It’s not like we in agriculture are the only ones to point out the absurdity of the UFW. Earlier this year, William Gould resigned as chairman of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, in part because of his frustration that only one petition for unionization had come before the board during his three-year tenure.

He told the Los Angeles Times that “the board spent more of its time on petitions from workers trying to kick out the UFW than on petitions to join the union,” and added that the UFW has “absolutely no interest in organizing the unorganized.”

Is Kevin de León talking about California agriculture? Does he actually know any Western Growers members?

Surely, the answers to both questions must be “no.” Because, if he did, he would know that the average wage rate for California field workers was $12.65 last year, 26.5% higher than the then-$10.00 state minimum wage. He would know about the middle-to-upper-middle class career opportunities our members provide for farm workers and other rural Californians, ranging from farm managers to field supervisors to irrigation foremen.

He would know that 97% of Western Growers companies offer vacation and sick pay, 85% offer an annual bonus plan for field workers, and 77% offer a 401(k) plan (most with matching employer contributions). And he would definitely know about the Western Growers Assurance Trust, the largest healthcare insurer of farmworkers in the country, even before the Affordable Care Act made health insurance mandatory.

The simple truth is: California farmers value their employees greatly. They provide for good compensation and benefits, because they know that Americans won’t do farm work. Contrary to what Kevin de León and like-minded legislators believe, our industry has evolved since the days of the Delano grape and Salad Bowl strikes.

The tension and conflict that gave rise to Cesar Chavez are long gone, replaced by a sense of partnership and common endeavor among farmers and farm workers alike.  There are many reasons the UFW has so few dues-paying members, none more obvious than the fact that farmworkers don’t want to pay 3% of their paychecks to a union when their employers are paying fair wages and providing reasonable benefits. 

The legacy of the UFW is no longer the reality in California. They no longer represent farmworkers. It is time for our elected leaders to recognize this fact and recalibrate the influence of this union.


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