The Million-Dollar March 

Farm workers want Gray Davis to expand their rights and shun big growers/donors

Wednesday, Aug 21 2002

A LONG, SLOW LINE OF MARCHERS PAINSTAKingly making their way up the Central Valley are complicating life and politics for Governor Gray Davis.

The marchers, all members and allies of the United Farm Workers, are urging Davis to sign a bill that provides farm workers with mediation and arbitration rights so they can win union contracts from growers who stall negotiations as workers move from crop to crop. Since 1975, employees of 428 companies have voted for the UFW, but only 185 growers have signed contracts. (One giant Salinas Valley combine has dragged out the process for decades.)

Nearly every Democrat in both houses of the Legislature voted for the bill, SB 1736 by California Senate President John Burton (D­San Francisco). But the crafty Senate leader told the UFW 12 days ago that Davis, who has raised more than $1 million from agribusiness, would likely veto the bill (other sources tell the Weekly the same thing) unless something dramatic happened. So union leaders hastily organized the march, which began in Merced, and an associated vigil, fast and rally at the Capitol.

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The 10-day, 150-mile "March for the Governor's Signature" culminates Sunday with a rally at the state Capitol. Led by UFW president Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the union with the late Cesar Chavez, the core group of 75 marchers gathered at a park in Turlock for a lengthy 7 a.m. Mass, then set out for Modesto, waving red-and-white flags with the black UFW eagle on them, listening to jaunty Mexican folk tunes by Los Lobos and other artists.

"This is a march for the conscience of one man," says Huerta, who has known Davis for as long as he has been in politics, even before Davis was chief of staff to then-Governor Jerry Brown, whose Farm Labor Act of 1975 improved conditions and gave the union the opportunity to organize and bargain with growers. "Jerry had a harder choice to make than Gray Davis," says Rodriguez. "He created the framework where none existed. The governor only has to make it work better than it has."

Davis declined to meet with Rodriguez, shunting him off to an aide, but the UFW president takes the implicit slight with equanimity. A patient man who runs marathons, he moves easily along the line of the march, frequently speaking words of encouragement to some who are flagging, running the union en route via a cell-phone headset.

Huerta is as voluble and dynamic as Rodriguez is cool and controlled. At 72, having had serious health problems in recent years, and missing a spleen as a result of a police beating, Huerta worried some with her insistence on walking every step of the 150-mile march. But she started off the day with great energy, talking on many subjects, including her recent trip to Cuba. "You can trust Gray when you have an agreement with him," Huerta says as we saunter up a frontage road alongside highway 99. "But he hasn't been talking to us lately," she says pointedly. Davis has just held another agribusiness fund-raiser.

A march like this is really sort of a peregrination. Trudging along together under the merciless Valley sky takes away some of the usual barriers. Former California Assembly Speaker Antonio Villaraigosa and his 13-year-old son, the very bright Antonio Jr., join in for the day, as does California Labor Federation chief Art Pulaski with his daughter. Since his near-miss race for mayor of L.A. last year, Villaraigosa has been speaking around the country and working on a biomedical-research project with USC and a venture-capital fund with billionaire Ron Burkle. Sharing burritos with the Weekly during a lunch break, Villaraigosa talks about Davis, with whom he worked very closely as Assembly speaker, helping the governor with problems in his relations with the Legislature.

"Gray should definitely sign this bill," he says. "Whether he will . . ." his voice trails off. "I'm going to call him after I get back to L.A. He has to understand that agriculture is unique, that the presence of mediation and arbitration are necessary to get growers to bargain in good faith instead of stall while workers move on with the seasons."

"One thing I'm really struck by is how friendly people are along the way," Villaraigosa notes. "On other marches I've been on there's been much more hostility."

Later on in the afternoon, after a fruit break beneath big shade trees on the outskirts of Modesto, state labor chief Pulaski picks up on that theme. "I think Anglo working people can understand the fairness of this issue. That's why we're completely â behind this." Pulaski also had heard that Davis plans to veto the bill. "How many times did he veto the workers' compensation bill?" asks Villaraigosa. "Too many," says Pulaski. "But he finally signed it."

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