Opinion: Cesar Chavez paved the way for stronger worker protections, but the fight continues

Opinion: The fight for workers’ rights continues – The San Diego Union-Tribune

What workers want is not gigs, they want full-time hours guaranteed, reliable schedules, employer-provided health care and Social Security benefits.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher

Gonzalez Fletcher is chief officer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO, and lives in San Diego.

Imagine a group of workers doing essential and dangerous work. They don’t get overtime pay. They aren’t covered by federal labor laws. The wealthy companies that employ them argue that somehow these workers are different, they don’t need the same protections that apply to other workers.

This example may sound familiar. I have spent years arguing that app-based workers should be treated like all other workers and have the same basic rights to a guaranteed wage, a safe workplace and a union. Just because someone is hired through an app cannot mean they lose all labor rights.

But the exclusion of one set of workers from labor laws is nothing new. The workers I’ve described are not gig workers, but farmworkers, who were one of the original groups of workers historically carved out from labor laws. Even while rights were greatly expanded for most workers, these workers were left behind.

As we approach another Cesar Chavez Day, what have we learned from nearly 50 years of farmworker struggles? In 1975, Cesar Chavez helped to pass the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, a law allowing farmworkers to organize. In 2016, I authored a law extending overtime pay to farmworkers. Last year, the United Farm Workers and the rest of the labor movement helped pass a bill to make it easier for farmworkers to join a union free from employer intimidation.

But none of these fights were won easily. When the National Labor Relations Act and the Fair Labor Standards Act were passed in the 1930s, agricultural workers were specifically excluded from these landmark laws, along with domestic workers. There is no question that these exclusions were rooted in racism, as these jobs were filled almost exclusively by Black workers. The language was negotiated with Southern representatives unwilling to extend the right to unionize or to wage and hour protections to Black workers.

Shockingly, these exclusions persisted for decades. These legal restrictions reinforced the idea that certain workers deserved these rights while others — mostly Black and Brown — did not. For decades these workers have labored outside labor laws, expected to work hours and under conditions unthinkable in other industries.

Cesar Chavez was a visionary not because he argued farmworkers were unique, but because he saw that farmworkers were like all other workers — deserving of a better life. He rejected the condescending notion that somehow Filipino and Mexican workers doing backbreaking work in California’s fields and orchards did not need or want the kinds of protections other workers had. He profoundly respected the workers he organized, saying, “Once social change begins, it cannot be reversed. You cannot un-educate the person who has learned to read. You cannot humiliate the person who feels pride. You cannot oppress the people who are not afraid anymore.”

Under his leadership, farmworkers went on strike, organized boycotts, won hundreds of union elections and improved conditions in an industry rife with exploitation. A generation of farmworkers won union contracts with better wages and benefits and found enough security that their children often had access to greater opportunities. This was my family’s story and the story of so many working Latinos in California.

While we have made important advances, we still have labor laws that exclude vulnerable workers. For domestic workers, the battle is for a safe work site. In private homes, the work site is literally behind closed doors. Yet these workers experience chemical burns from cleaning products, wage theft and misclassification from homeowners and staffing agencies, and sexual harassment from employers just like all other workers. Like farmworkers, like gig workers, domestic workers have asserted their humanity and their right to respect on the job.

Now that the farmworker overtime law is taking effect, we see articles about how farmworkers were better off before this law applied. Somehow, we are expected to believe that unlike all other workers, agricultural workers would prefer to work longer days for less money. We are expected to believe that unlike other workers, they have no need to come home to their families, pick up their kids from daycare, or any of the other aspects of life that make overtime policy work in every other industry.

As our economy changes, we are often told that worker protections like minimum wage and overtime are archaic and that the future of work is some mix of side hustles. It was telling that as the young workers at Starbucks gathered to decide on priorities for a union contract, their demands told a different story. What workers want is not gigs, they want full-time hours guaranteed, reliable schedules, employer-provided health care and Social Security benefits. In other words, exactly what unions and workers have been demanding for more than 100 years.

What Cesar Chavez knew when he started to organize farmworkers is that no job is inherently bad and no worker should be doomed to a life of exploitation. When workers join together to form a union, they can change their lives. That is true today for every worker in every industry and our labor laws must reflect that fundamental truth and treat every worker equally.