By Robert Rooks
The NAACP is joining the United Farm Workers of America to ask the California Legislature and Governor Jerry Brown to reverse a shameful chapter in our nation’s history by granting overtime pay to California farm workers.
The UFW, begun by Cesar Chavez, is the largest and most successful farm worker union in the country and the oldest activist Latino organization to emerge from the 1960s civil rights movement.
The union is sponsoring Assembly Bill 1313 by Assemblymember Michael Allen (D-Santa Rosa). It calls for overtime wages for farm workers after an eight-hour workday, a 40-hour work week or for working more than eight hours on the seventh day.
Nearly all other American workers have enjoyed such basic protections for 74 years, since passage of the landmark federal Fair Labor Standards Act. Farm workers were specifically excluded from the minimum wage and overtime protections of the 1938 law.
That was the price President Franklin D. Roosevelt had to pay to win votes from Southern lawmakers.
Why? Most farm workers in the 1930s were African Americans. Here is what one Southerner, U.S. Rep. J. Mark Wilcox of Florida, said at the time when he argued against including agricultural workers in the Fair Labor Standards Act:
“There has always been a difference in the wage scale of white and colored labor…You cannot put the Negro and the white man on the same basis and get away with it. Not only would such a situation result in grave social and racial conflicts, but it would also result in throwing the Negro out of employment and in making him a public charge.”
Today, most farm workers are Latino. Yet those who are not farm workers are still saying ending their exemption from the overtime law is not good for them. Overtime pay after eight hours a day is long overdue for farm workers.
They are not second-class workers. They do not belong to a lower class of workers in California or the nation. They are men and women who take some of the hardest jobs in America, often for pay and under conditions other American workers would not tolerate.
The presence of unjust laws and the absence of just laws have marginalized minority groups. When racism is blended with anti-labor policy, minorities are sentenced to perpetual poverty and oppression.
Now is the time to end this vestige of the caste system for farm workers that treats them as if they are not important workers or important human beings. The exclusion of farm workers from overtime after eight hours was wrong then. It is wrong now. The time has come for it to end.
By acting justly, by enacting AB 1313, state legislators and Governor Brown can right a grievous wrong that can no longer be justified or tolerated in a society where equal rights and equal justice are supposed to be more than academic theories or political rhetoric.
Robert Rooks is Executive Director/CEO of the California State Conference of the NAACP.