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January 2003, Volume 9, Number 1

California: Labor Law, Unions

The California Industrial Welfare Commission in January 2003 rejected a proposal to increase the state's minimum wage, currently $6.75 an hour and earned by about 500,000 of the state's workers, to $8 an hour by July 2004.

National Public Radio's November 14, 2002 program included a segment on farm labor contractors in the San Joaquin Valley that opened with a 1949 quote from Cary McWillams: "The farm labor problem is the cancer which lies beneath the beauty, richness and fertility of the Central Valley… The farm labor problem has become a part of the state's economy. Nowadays, the problem is thoroughly understood and the facts are notorious, but nothing approximating a solution has been achieved."

The segment profiled raisin harvesting, and interviewed farm labor contractors, workers and growers to make the point that farm labor contractors should make the labor market more efficient, finding seasonal workers for farmers and arranging a series of jobs for seasonal workers.

UFW-Chavez. In Watsonville, the UFW intervened in a decertification election at Coastal Berry, and won, 182 for the UFW to 98 for no union. The Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee that had represented Coastal workers objected that employment was not 50 percent of peak.

At nearby Monterey Mushrooms, PCUN intervened in a decertification election held August 16, 2002 and won 73-11 over the Fresh Fruit and Vegetable Workers union, which had represented Monterey Mushrooms workers. PCUN was certified as the workers' representative.

The UFW requires members who are eligible to apply for pension benefits under its Juan de la Cruz pension plan. Many eligible workers do not apply, so the union has sought out members to provide them with checks. A 68-year old who worked at H&M Vegetable farm from 1976 to 1984 received a $250 a month pension. According to the UFW, most pension payments range from $100 to $500 a month; the UFW says that 10,000 individuals have contributed to the plan, which has $100 million in assets.

The UFW in December 2002 requested its third nonfarm (NLRA) election, seeking to represent 70 banquet workers employed at the Westin La Cantera Resort in San Antonio who earn a base wage of about $3 an hour, plus tips. The NLRB allowed an election among only banquet workers, Westin objected, and the ballots were not counted. The UFW represents furniture workers at Guy Chaddock in Bakersfield and workers employed by four Catholic parishes in Brownsville, Texas.

Dolores Huerta, 72, received the $100,000 Puffin/Nation Prize for Creative Citizenship in 2002. She previously was awarded the Robert Baldwin Medal of Liberty Award from the American Civil Liberties Union, the Outstanding American Award from the Eugene V. Debs Foundation, and was made a member of the American Women's Hall of Fame. Photographer Rick Nahmias has a $20,000 exhibit, "The Migrant Project," at the Goldwyn Hollywood Library in Los Angeles.

In November 2002 voters in Colorado and New Mexico rejected a state holiday honoring Cesar Chavez. In 2001, New Mexico Governor Gary Johnson vetoed a proposal that would have created a holiday for state workers in Chavez's honor, saying that nine paid state holidays was enough.

Migrants. On July 5, 2000, eight teens with BB guns attacked Mexican-born workers employed by nearby nurseries in northern San Diego county. In November 2002, the three teens considered the ringleaders were sentenced to one to two years in county jail and five years probation; the other five were sentenced in summer 2002 to various terms of between five and eight months in county jail, plus five years' probation.

In January 2002, Carlsbad plans to remove 40 huts built by migrants along the south shore of Agua Hedionda Lagoon. San Diego Gas & Electric Co. owns the land on which the workers are camped and the city leases about half of it as parkland.

The California Endowment in December 2002 pledged $20 million to $30 million for at least five years to 10 farm worker communities, implementing the recommendations of a 10-member Agricultural Worker Health and Housing Commission to improve the lives of farm workers. The Endowment sponsored health checkups of farm workers in 2000 that found a third of the men and 12 percent of women farm workers had never seen a doctor and 40 percent of the men over age 40 were obese.

Juan Uranga of the Center for Community Advocacy in Salinas said that Endowment funds supported a network of 50 tenant committees that work with growers to generate political support for housing.

Unemployment Insurance. California's Unemployment insurance system makes it relatively easy to qualify for benefits, but provides relatively low benefits. For 2003, workers earning at least $900 in a quarter receive $40 a week in UI benefits for up to 26 weeks, and those earning over $9,594 a quarter receive $370 a week. Employers pay 0.9 to 5.4 percent of their employees' first $7,000 in earnings to cover the cost of providing UI benefits; the new employer UI tax rate is 3.4 percent for up to three years. There is an additional 0.1 percent Employment Training Tax on the first $7,000 in earnings, and a 0.9 percent State Disability Insurance tax on the first $56,916 of employee earnings.

According to the Economic Roundtable, 1.5 million workers in Los Angeles county are paid in cash, and $1.1 billion is not paid in payroll taxes for Social Security, workers' compensation, and unemployment insurance. In November 2002, the owners of three Palmdale janitorial companies were sentenced to about a year in prison for not paying workers' compensation insurance premiums and unemployment insurance taxes for their 100 to 300 workers, enabling them to underbid other janitorial services. The employers also failed to pay overtime wages. This case was prosecuted by the Janitorial Maintenance Task Force, which includes the state Department of Labor, Employment Development Department, Department of Insurance, Franchise Tax Board, Immigration and Naturalization Service, and the Internal Revenue Service.

Migrant workers are often considered among the least protected in the US. Anne Marie Ballowe, who starred in adult movies for seven years in the 1990s, complained that female porn stars get only $1,200 a shoot, twice men's wages, but with no benefits. She said: "If farm workers have [labor] rights, so should we."

Ballowe, quoted in Robert Lusetich, "Heavy toll on Tinseltown's hardcore pawns," The Australian, January 20, 2003. Greg Moran, "3 teens sentenced in migrant attack. Activists say punishment of jail, 5 years' probation is too lenient," San Diego Union Tribune, November 21, 2002.

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