The Left Coast Goes Lefter: Even Gray Davis Gets Swept along. (Gazette)

Article excerpt

CALIFORNIA GOV. GRAY DAVIS' signature on legislation that would bring far more power to the state's legendary farmworker union has capped and brought into focus a stunning year of progressive accomplishment in the Golden State. Together, a very liberal Legislature and a very calculating governor have enacted the most extensive renewable energy requirement in the country, the first law to fight global warming, the first law authorizing state funds for stem-cell research on fetal and embryonic tissue and the first comprehensive paid family-leave program. But nothing is more dramatic than the first major legislation in a quarter-century helping the farmworkers, who are not covered by national labor law.

The irresistible force behind the farmworker bill caught Davis by surprise. In late summer, he was opposed to legislation that would mandate binding arbitration between farmworkers and growers when the growers refused to negotiate a contract. Then, on Aug. 15, the union set off from the agricultural town of Merced for a 165-mile march on the capital. By the time a whirlwind three weeks were over, Davis was negotiating terms and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union was again dramatically ensconced in the Democratic Party's consciousness.

It was a most unexpected development for Davis, who'd been anticipating waging a nice little war of attrition against his Republican opponent, investor Bill Simon Jr. With re-election in hand (a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Davis with a 10 percent lead), the governor could look to other horizons as a player in national politics. But the slow, steadily moving line of marchers up the Central Valley complicated the governor's life. They were urging Davis to sign legislation sponsored by state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), president pro tempore of the California Senate, that would grant farmworkers arbitration when growers stall negotiations--as is more the rule than the exception. Employees of 428 companies have voted for the UFW since 1975, but only 185 growers have actually signed contracts with the union. (One giant Salinas Valley combine has dragged out the process for 27 years.) Nearly every Democrat in both houses of the Legislature voted for Burton's bill. But the crafty Senate leader told the UFW less than a week before the march began that Davis, who has raised $1.5 million from agribusiness, was likely to veto the bill unless something dramatic happened. Union leaders hastily organized the march--as well as a vigil, fast and rally at California's Capitol--on Sunday, Aug. 25.

"This is a march for the conscience of one man," said legendary UFW cofounder Dolores Huerta, who knew Davis even before he became chief of staff to then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975--the year Brown's Agricultural Labor Relations Act first gave farmworkers the opportunity to organize and bargain with growers. "Jerry had a harder choice to make than Gray Davis," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. "He created the framework where none existed. The [current] governor only has to make it work better than it has."

When the march finally rolled into downtown Sacramento's Cesar Chavez Plaza the night before the big rally, Huerta was in a pensive mood. "When Gray signed [the bill designating] Cesar Chavez Day [a state holiday], he gave me a copy of the bill with a note calling me his `conscience.' I know what my conscience says. Now we'll learn if he hears his conscience." The 72-year-old Huerta, who nearly died last year from an aneurysm, said that she planned to fast if Davis wouldn't sign the bill--a chilling prospect for both her health and Davis' image.

On Sunday morning, Davis was on his way to Fresno to attend a dinner honoring the only Democrat in the Legislature to vote against the farm-labor bill. Not that it mattered to the thousands gathered in Cesar Chavez Plaza for the march on the Capitol. With trumpets and air horns blaring, Aztec drums pounding and farmworkers chanting, Huerta, Rodriguez and Burton held an impromptu press conference. …