Los Angeles Times

State labor group gets in-your-face leadership

- ANITA CHABRIA reporting from sacramento

Former Assemblywo­man Lorena Gonzalez takes over as head of the California Labor Federation on Wednesday, 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.”

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

It’s 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% — 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, publicsect­or workers, nurses and others — failed to include.

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 grassroots 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 icons of unionism, the 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.

The 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 unionizati­on drives.

That bill came in response to 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.

The UFW responded by holding a Napa Valley march from the French Laundry restaurant, 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.

The 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 the UFW will rejoin the Fed, it will be a reminder that she isn’t afraid of the governor, who was 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.

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 on Twitter.

“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.”

 ?? Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press ?? LORENA GONZALEZ, the new head of the California Labor Federation, is bringing the United Farm Workers back into the fold after 16 years.
Rich Pedroncell­i Associated Press LORENA GONZALEZ, the new head of the California Labor Federation, is bringing the United Farm Workers back into the fold after 16 years.
 ?? ??
 ?? K.C. Alfred San Diego Union-Tribune ?? FARMWORKER­S’ ability to unionize will be a priority for Lorena Gonzalez, chief of labor group the Fed.
K.C. Alfred San Diego Union-Tribune FARMWORKER­S’ ability to unionize will be a priority for Lorena Gonzalez, chief of labor group the Fed.

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