Fighting for Fair Treatment for Farmworkers

A common refrain from anti-union politicians and pundits across the country is that workers “no longer” need unions. That unions outlived their usefulness by winning minimum wages, 8-hour days and OSHA, and that the right to collectively bargain for safe and humane working conditions is an outdated relic of a more dangerous time. Try telling that to the friends, family and loved ones of María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez.

Three years ago this Monday, María Isabel Vásquez Jiménez collapsed and died after spending 9 hours pruning grapevines in Farmington. She was 17 years old, engaged and two months pregnant. This tragic loss, however, was far from accidental.

As the temperature soared to 95 degrees that day, Maria Isabel’s employer ignored California’s outdoor heat regulations requiring adequate drinking water, shade and rest. When she collapsed, Merced Farm Labor company bosses still denied her both shade and even medical treatment, and following a failed attempt to revive her—by draping an alcohol-soaked cloth over her face—released her to fiancee Florentino Bautista. Florentino, who had been working alongside her that day, recalls supervisors “grumbling” at workers who tried to drink water. Maria Isabel died two days later at Lodi Memorial Hospital.

No one defends Merced Farm Labor supervisors’ actions. The question, then, becomes one of why such a bad employer was never caught before this disaster — but the tragic answer is that they already were. Two years prior, the company was fined for violations related to illness and injury prevention, sanitation and even heat illness prevention. According to Farmworkers Forum, the fine was never even paid and Cal/OSHA inspectors were never summoned to return for a reinspection.

Cal/OSHA and other statewide worker protection agencies rely heavily on worker input and reporting to learn who and where these bad employers are. However, in an environment where workers enjoy little to no protection from illegal employer retaliation, the fear of losing one’s job—or worse—often trumps the fear of suffering an unjust or unsafe workplace. Florentino Bautista, for example, reported that he was threatened with deportation were he honest with hospital staff regarding the true circumstances around his fiance’s death. This weapon—forcing undocumented workers to choose between safety and deportation—is all too common across California’s agriculture industry.

For many union workers, the most cherished benefit of union representation is just that: representation. Knowing that you’re backed by an organization with the resources and legal know-how to defend your right to blow the whistle on an irresponsible employer can make all the difference in your willingness to actually do so. Non-union workers essentially don’t enjoy the ability to stand up for what’s right; they can be fired at any time, for almost any reason. And in the case of farmworkers, you can often add the fear of deportation to the mix, creating an environment where employer intimidation and virtual lawlessness thrive. Just ask former employees of Merced Farm Labor.

On Monday, the three-year anniversary of Maria Isabel’s death, California’s Assembly will vote on SB 104, which would allow farmworkers the right to organize a union through a process free from such intimidation and threats. Often called “card-check” or “majority sign-up,” SB 104 simply requires employers to recognize the union when a majority of workers want one, and the bill provides stiff penalties for employers who—like Merced Farm Labor—pad profit margins by cutting corners and denying basic worker rights.

Almost identical bills were vetoed by Governor Schwarzenegger in 2007 and 2009. The legislature knows this issue, and more importantly, by now knows all too well why it’s so critical. Not only do all workers, whether documented or undocumented, fundamentally deserve the right to demand a safer workplace, but all of us directly suffer from an economic environment where so many workers are pressured into substandard wages, benefits and working conditions. Farmworkers, and the rest of their labor brothers and sisters, have fought too hard and struggled for too long to lose this historic fight, on this historic day. Members of the California State Assembly, the time to pass this bill is now.