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Author Miriam Pawel: “The strongest model for farmworkers today is in Florida, where the Coalition of Immokalee Workers has achieved major gains – not through state law but through years of patient, creative organizing that produced a framework to improve wages and working conditions, with effective enforcement.”

Monday’s New York Times carried a provocative Op/Ed by the Pulitzer Prize-winning journalist and historian Miriam Pawel on a recent, and significant, legislative victory for farmworkers in New York State.  But while Pawel’s take on the new law is indeed intriguing – and merits serious consideration by farmworkers, farmworker advocates, and consumers fighting for a more modern, more dignified food system – her comments on the CIW and the Fair Food Program are certainly worth noting, as well.

Pawel – author of both the definitive biography of the United Farm Workers’ (UFW) founder Cesar Chavez (“The Crusades of Cesar Chavez”) and the most authoritative history of the UFW to date (“The Union of Their Dreams”) – opens her piece with a nod to the law’s historical significance:

After more than a decade of contentious debate, New York has passed a law that entitles farmworkers to basic rights that most workers take for granted — the right to earn overtime, have a day off, collect unemployment insurance and join a union. The law corrects injustices that date back to the exclusion of farmworkers and domestics from the National Labor Relations Act, in an effort to win Southern votes by exempting the largely black work forces…

But she simultaneously sounds a strong note of caution about the new law’s potential for bringing about meaningful labor progress in the fields, drawn from her study of the UFW’s history in California, where a similar law was passed decades ago:

… Yet this victory may prove to be largely symbolic. That is the sad lesson from California, which has had on the books for more than 40 years a farmworker statute hailed as the most pro-labor law in the country. The Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 grants farmworkers the right to unionize, sets up procedures for speedy elections, allows union organizers access to growers’ fields and provides remedies for workers who are unjustly fired or penalized, including back pay.

But today, the board that administers the law is virtually moribund; it has not met in public since January. For most of the year it has lacked a quorum. And nobody seems to notice. Certainly not farmworkers, an overwhelmingly undocumented work force whose wages and conditions are for the most part arguably no better than decades ago...

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