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Column: Farmworkers join California Labor Federation as Lorena Gonzalez takes over

Former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez
Former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez is taking over as head of the California Labor Federation on Wednesday, and she’s bringing the farmworkers union with her.
(K.C. Alfred / San Diego Union-Tribune)

Former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez on Wednesday is taking over as head of the California Labor Federation, and she’s dropping a surprise meant to make clear that her leadership will not be business as usual: She’s bringing the farmworkers union with her.

After about 16 years of being mostly on its own, with declining fortunes, the United Farm Workers is joining the Fed, the “union of unions” that acts as an umbrella for the California labor movement, leveraging collective clout and money in elections and at the Capitol.

It may sound like inside baseball, but it is without a doubt a moment in the history of workers’ rights in the Golden State, which has long been less than golden for our most defenseless wage earners — those who pick crops, fry burgers and fill thousands of service and gig-industry jobs that offer as little in the way of wages as they do in workplace rights.

As Gonzalez told me Monday, two days before becoming the first woman and the first person of color to lead the Fed, joining with the farmworkers is a message: “We are going to ruffle some feathers, and you are not going to get any apologies.”

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McDonald’s, Amazon, Big Ag, Gov. Gavin Newsom — she’s talking to you. But I’ll get to that.

It’s also a message that California is hoping to ride the new wave of labor that’s rolling across the country, one increasingly led by young people of color and women. Baristas, warehouse workers, fast-food cashiers and cooks — we all know the stories of the post-pandemic fatigue and frustration that have led these low-wage employees to seek the power of collective bargaining, and the great lengths to which corporations are going to prevent their success.

In recent months, union representation petitions filed with the National Labor Relations Board have skyrocketed by 56% — marking nearly 2,000 workplaces trying to unionize. During the same period, unfair labor practice claims have increased 14.5% — up from 11,451 to 13,106, according to an NLRB official. This is a fight for a future where a single job actually pays the bills.

But, like farmworkers, those hopeful union members, many immigrants, are often people that the old guard of the labor movement — dominated by middle-class groups that include teachers, public-sector workers, nurses and others — failed to include.

Gay, bisexual and transgender communities fear a repeat of the AIDS-era indifference that left too many without care.

Gonzalez, the daughter of a farmworker and a nurse, has long been in their corner and made her legislative career backing workers on the fringes of stability. She championed a bill that raised the minimum wage — an effort supported by one of the most diverse unions, the Service Employees International Union, and Fight for $15, a grass-roots coalition of fast-food workers.

She also forced so-called gig companies to treat their employees as, well, employees, with Assembly Bill 5. That law remains controversial, and Gonzalez still backs it with the pugnacious, no-holds-barred style that made her a force of nature under the Capitol dome.

When Gonzalez called UFW President Teresa Romero and asked her to bring farmworkers back into the fold, “I had no hesitations,” said Romero, herself the first Latina and first immigrant woman in the U.S. to lead a national union. “She has never overlooked the most vulnerable workers.”

It may come as a surprise to many that the farmworkers have long been on the outskirts of the mainstream labor movement in California, despite “Si Se Puede,” first spoken by Dolores Huerta, being a ubiquitous slogan at rallies.

While Huerta and Cesar Chavez are two of the most famous icons of unionism, UFW, the union they helped create, has been losing members and political power for years (though it still punches far above its weight at the Capitol, where Latino representation has grown). It left the Fed in about 2006, though neither Romero nor Gonzalez has been able to figure out why. For a while, its staunchest ally seemed to be an internet cat named Jorts.

UFW is down to fewer than 7,000 members by most counts and last fall suffered an ugly legislative defeat when Newsom vetoed a bill that would have allowed mail-in ballots for its unionization drives.

That bill came months before a court ruling that basically kicked union organizers off of private farms, making it harder to organize or hold elections; most farmworkers are undocumented, and showing up on the boss’ land to vote for a union can seem like a real risk. The veto of the bill was a body blow to a union already struggling to stay on its feet.

UFW responded by holding a march from the French Laundry restaurant in Napa, where Newsom infamously dined during the pandemic lockdown, to his PlumpJack Winery. By the time they arrived, he had left the state on a family vacation, and they’d made a dramatic point about elitism.

YOUNTVILLE, CALIF. - SEPT. 25, 2021 - Farmworkers outside the French Laundry.(Jean Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)
Farmworkers rally Sept. 25, 2021, outside the French Laundry in Yountville, Calif., the high-end restaurant where Gov. Gavin Newsom was caught dining maskless at a party during the pandemic.
(Jean Guerrero / Los Angeles Times)

UFW this year reintroduced the proposal (Assembly Bill 2183) with its author, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), but by all accounts, relations have not entirely thawed between the governor and the farmworkers, and his signature isn’t a certainty — though his office told me Tuesday he is open to working on the proposal.

Enter Lorena.

When Gonzalez announces Wednesday that UFW will rejoin the Fed, it will be a reminder that she isn’t afraid of the governor, who was often a “frenemy” during her time in the Legislature. And she does love a righteous fight.

She told me the farmworkers bill will become a priority piece of legislation for the Fed, meaning it gets all the attention and support she can muster — and potentially pits her against the governor in one of her first battles.

Gov. Gavin Newsom has proposed civil courts to help people with severe mental illness. Critics call it ‘forced treatment’ — but that misses the point.

It’s a statement, and one likely to be well received by those young union hopefuls she wants and needs to energize to keep the Fed relevant and powerful in a new era. We all know that farmworkers deserve better treatment than we give them, especially in these extraordinary days, when heat, wildfire, inflation and far-right, anti-immigrant attacks are all making a tough life even harder.

From day one, Gonzalez is letting it be known what she stands for, who she stands with and how far she’ll go. It’s the same kind of in-your-face swagger Newsom deployed when running ads recently against Republican governors Ron DeSantis and Greg Abbott — an assertiveness that young workers and young Democrats are hungry for, but is sorely lacking in most politicians and political leaders.

But assertiveness has never been a problem for Gonzalez.

“I’m tired of being told to seek consensus & ‘middle ground’ with a corporate class that views workers as disposable & wall street as God. I’m tired of the left taking pride in the moral high ground as we lose everything. And, I’m f—ing tired of being told to watch my language,” she wrote recently on Twitter, a medium she uses often.

“Maybe if we hadn’t been so damn polite & smart & reasonable, we wouldn’t be facing the never ending losing battle we face today,” she continued. “We can still save our Country. Stop clutching your pearls.”


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