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Democrats honor labor with exception of farm workers

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POSTED September 2, 2012 11:18 p.m.

Honor labor.

You’ll hear a lot of that today in traditional Labor Day speeches made by politicians.

It’s too bad few really believe it including Democrats.

Sure the Democrats make their stand in high profile cases such as blocking much of Gov. Jerry Brown’s meaningful pension reforms designed to keep the state from hitting the financial skids. Don’t think it was out of solidarity with workers. That’s far from it. The state employee unions, much like the California Taxpayers Association as well as their counterparts in the business sector can afford to “buy” influence through campaign contributions.

Ironically, politicians often raise campaign money at $250 a plate dinners serving food harvested by farm workers.

The Democratic controlled California Assembly on Friday rejected legislation on a 34-33 vote that would have given farm workers the right to receive overtime pay for working more than eight hours in a day or 40 hours in a week.

California is essentially discriminating against an entire group of workers who arguably perform some of the most physically demanding jobs around and do so in working conditions and with pay that most of us would not accept. Yes, farm workers do get overtime pay now but only after working 10 hours in a day or 60 hours in a week.

And guess what region of California gets hit the hardest by the discriminatory working rules that Democrats are essentially keeping in place since they don’t need Republicans to pass legislation in Sacramento? It’s the San Joaquin Valley where the bulk of this state’s food is grown. It is a region that was aptly described by the Congressional Research Service in 2006 as “The new Appalachia” based on a 353-page report that examined economic and living conditions in the eight-county San Joaquin Valley.

Of course, everyone likes to blame farmers for putting the pressure on politicians not to raise the bar for farm workers as it would cost growers more money.

That’s not the real problem.

Farmers are squeezed to keep commodity prices as low as possible by the economic forces put on them by corporations that control vast amounts of the food processing economy. Farmers have to keep finding ways to grow more per acre at lower and lower costs just to stay even.

It’s market economics, you say. Not really. Government has a long history of interfering with market prices in a bid to keep costs down. And when that happens, everyone else benefits except farmers and the people who work for them.

Our disposable income has gone up 22 percent since 1930 thanks to innovations by farmers to grow more food per acre. It has taken the amount a typical American household spends on food from 24.2 percent of their annual household income in 1930 to 9.54 percent in 2008 based on United States Department of Agriculture stats.

That has freed up money for American consumers to buy the latest iPhone, feature jammed new vehicles, and vacation a lot more among other things. Farmers aren’t all on the financial abyss but they have a thinner margin for error than almost every other sector.

Simply put, we would not tolerate paying 5 percent more for our food so those who do the necessary labor to grow and harvest it would have the same wage protections that we do.

The end result is a big strain on safety net services in the San Joaquin Valley and an equally big hit on the regional economy. Contrary to popular belief, most farm workers who pick crops live in the San Joaquin Valley. When the rest of us who live in the San Joaquin Valley buy into the myth, it ultimately hurts us financially as well.

Folks up in Sacramento who bet the proverbial farm on high speed rail like to talk about all of the construction jobs that it’ll bring to the San Joaquin Valley. The operative word is “bring.” Just how many farm workers or others that toil in lower paying canning and packinghouse jobs do you think will get a shot at specialized construction jobs commanding $20 to $40 an hour that pay overtime after eight hours?

The one thing that drives the collective San Joaquin Valley economy - farming - is being forced to operate by a different set of rules.

Go ahead and blame it on the farmers but that isn’t really the case. It is highly doubtful that the ruling class of politicians would ever allow food prices to rise simply so farm workers could expect the same wage protections as other California workers.

So when politicians say honor labor, they’re not talking about the most defenseless that toil some of the toughest jobs in California. They mean those who give them hefty campaign contributions.

 

 

This column is the opinion of managing editor, Dennis Wyatt, and does not necessarily represent the opinion of The Bulletin or Morris Newspaper Corp. of CA. He can be contacted at dwyatt@mantecabulletin.com or 209-249-3519.

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