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The Million-Dollar March

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.

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."  

For amusement during the long, sweltering day, the Weekly calls several top Davis aides, asking if they want to talk to Huerta, Rodriguez, Pulaski or Villaraigosa. "Uh, no, that's okay," says one Davisite who answered his cell phone. The others don't return their voice mails.

In Modesto, the march is greeted by hundreds of supporters honking horns and waving signs before ending up at a big feast at Chavez Park.

Farm worker Maria Mendonza, who was on the first big farm-worker march to the Capitol in 1966, says what she would like to tell Davis:

"I would tell him that we are in new times with computers and that phone you talk on, and it is exciting. But in many ways it is still old times for the campesinos," she says. "Things are better but not so much as fancy people like to think. He can bring us into the new times. I hope he will."

 

BACK IN SACRAMENTO ON MONDAY, the dimensions of Davis' dilemma become even more apparent. At a press conference announcing that 30 legislators will join farm workers in a vigil and fast outside the Capitol urging the governor's signature, Burton notes that Davis has already signed a bill giving racetrack workers mediation and arbitration rights. "The difference is," he says pointedly, "there was also $20 million for racetrack owners in the bill. There's no money for growers in this bill. But we've given ag $70 million in tax breaks the last three years, so they can afford to pay their workers a little more."

"It doesn't behoove the governor," Burton says even more pointedly, "to split from members of his party, who very strongly support this issue, going into the budget fight and a general election. I'm optimistic, though, because it's the right thing to do."

Indeed, all the major prospective 2006 Democratic gubernatorial candidates -- State Treasurer Phil Angelides, Attorney General Bill Lockyer and Lieutenant Governor Cruz Bustamante -- are participating in legs of the march to the Capitol, as are Burton and Assembly Speaker Herb Wesson.

What does Davis have to say about the march? The governor is unavailable, but Press Secretary Steve Maviglio says, "The governor welcomes their participation. He will do the best thing in the interests of all Californians."

Davis frequently cites Cesar Chavez during talks to Latino groups as one of the principal inspirations of his life. "He wasn't close to Cesar," says a former aide from the Governor Jerry Brown administration. "But I sensed warm feelings toward him. Now he has to decide if those warm feelings overcome his new alliance with agribusiness. This is all so different now. With Jerry, there were hardly any growers around. We were on the side of the farm workers, and that was that."

It's different for Davis, too. His alliance with agribusiness is newfound. Big ag didn't do much for him in the most crucial race of his life, the 1998 Democratic primary for governor, when all but a few experts counted him out of the running against superrich rivals Al Checchi and Jane Harman. In contrast, organized labor came through big time for Davis, and the UFW was very supportive, even though other Latino leaders leaned toward Checchi. When Davis trounced agribusiness favorite Dan Lungren in November 1998, UFW activists chanted and danced around him at his victory party in downtown L.A.'s Biltmore Hotel.

Some Davis allies point to his enactment of Cesar Chavez Day. But others scoff at that. Says Dolores Huerta: "Cesar never wanted a 'day.' He wanted results. He would trade his 'day' for this bill in a second."

Others note that Davis is faced with two highly charged Latino-oriented issues, the farm-labor bill and a bill by state Assemblyman Gil Cedillo (D­Los Angeles) to allow undocumented immigrants to get drivers' licenses, and suggest that he can only sign one now. John Burton says only one isn't good enough, and most of Davis' own party agrees with Burton.

So does the man who helped Davis |immeasurably in his career, his old boss, former-Governor-turned-Oakland-Mayor Jerry Brown. He is not on the march this week, because he is leading a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he will talk, among other things, about his support for L.A. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley's anti­global warming bill.

Brown called Davis last week about the farm-labor bill, which he supports. What did they say? "I'm not getting into all that," says Brown, who along with Davis has assiduously avoided turning their relationship into a soap opera. But Brown, along with other political experts, notes that Davis' ties to agribusiness are largely circumstantial. Republican challenger Bill Simon is "nowhere," says Brown, "so ag has nowhere to go. The Republicans were more competitive when I was running. Ag was always a bulwark of the Republican Party when it was highly viable. They're some of the most conservative in the state. How much is Gray raising anyway?" Told that the Weekly's estimate is north of $60 million (of which agriculture's share is very small), Brown lets out a low "Wow." Pausing for a moment, Brown notes, "You have to balance what you need to do against what you should do."  

How adamant is big ag on this issue? Very. "They have the right to express their opinion," California Farm Bureau lobbyist George Gomes says of the marchers. "We believe the governor will make his decision on the facts presented to him. This bill would single out agriculture by requiring binding arbitration. Why go through the bargaining process?"

Isn't your objection really that workers will get paid more as a result of this bill? asks the Weekly. "The cost of production in California is already higher," the Farm Bureau spokesman answers, "because of higher land, water and labor costs, and the cost of environmental protection, which we're for." Higher labor costs? "The minimum wage is higher here." How much do California farm workers make now? "I can't tell you that." The UFW says that 75 percent of California's farm workers still make less than $10,000 a year.

Of course, even if Davis vetoes this particular bill, John Burton, who is holding it back while the march makes its way north, plans to force the issue again in the future. Meanwhile, the UFW is running buses up to Sacramento for the big Capitol rally on Sunday. If you want to go and tell Gray Davis to make a difference, call (323) 722-0118.

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