The Left Coast Goes Lefter

California Gov. Gray Davis' signature on legislation that would bring far more power to the state's legendary farmworker union has capped and brought into focus a stunning year of progressive accomplishment in the Golden State. Together, a very liberal Legislature and a very calculating governor have enacted the most extensive renewable energy requirement in the country, the first law to fight global warming, the first law authorizing state funds for stem-cell research on fetal and embryonic tissue and the first comprehensive paid family-leave program. But nothing is more dramatic than the first major legislation in a quarter-century helping the farmworkers, who are not covered by national labor law.

The irresistible force behind the farmworker bill caught Davis by surprise. In late summer, he was opposed to legislation that would mandate binding arbitration between farmworkers and growers when the growers refused to negotiate a contract. Then, on Aug. 15, the union set off from the agricultural town of Merced for a 165-mile march on the capital. By the time a whirlwind three weeks were over, Davis was negotiating terms and the United Farm Workers (UFW) union was again dramatically ensconced in the Democratic Party's consciousness.

It was a most unexpected development for Davis, who'd been anticipating waging a nice little war of attrition against his Republican opponent, investor Bill Simon Jr. With re-election in hand (a recent Los Angeles Times poll showed Davis with a 10 percent lead), the governor could look to other horizons as a player in national politics. But the slow, steadily moving line of marchers up the Central Valley complicated the governor's life. They were urging Davis to sign legislation sponsored by state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), president pro tempore of the California Senate, that would grant farmworkers arbitration when growers stall negotiations -- as is more the rule than the exception. Employees of 428 companies have voted for the UFW since 1975, but only 185 growers have actually signed contracts with the union. (One giant Salinas Valley combine has dragged out the process for 27 years.) Nearly every Democrat in both houses of the Legislature voted for Burton's bill. But the crafty Senate leader told the UFW less than a week before the march began that Davis, who has raised $1.5 million from agribusiness, was likely to veto the bill unless something dramatic happened. Union leaders hastily organized the march -- as well as a vigil, fast and rally at California's Capitol -- on Sunday, Aug. 25.

"This is a march for the conscience of one man," said legendary UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, who knew Davis even before he became chief of staff to then-Gov. Jerry Brown in 1975 -- the year Brown's Agricultural Labor Relations Act first gave farmworkers the opportunity to organize and bargain with growers. "Jerry had a harder choice to make than Gray Davis," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. "He created the framework where none existed. The [current] governor only has to make it work better than it has."

When the march finally rolled into downtown Sacramento's Cesar Chavez Plaza the night before the big rally, Huerta was in a pensive mood. "When Gray signed [the bill designating] Cesar Chavez Day [a state holiday], he gave me a copy of the bill with a note calling me his 'conscience.' I know what my conscience says. Now we'll learn if he hears his conscience." The 72-year-old Huerta, who nearly died last year from an aneurysm, said that she planned to fast if Davis wouldn't sign the bill -- a chilling prospect for both her health and Davis' image.

On Sunday morning, Davis was on his way to Fresno to attend a dinner honoring the only Democrat in the Legislature to vote against the farm-labor bill. Not that it mattered to the thousands gathered in Cesar Chavez Plaza for the march on the Capitol. With trumpets and air horns blaring, Aztec drums pounding and farmworkers chanting, Huerta, Rodriguez and Burton held an impromptu press conference. "I got angrier with every step of the march," said Burton, "that the farmworkers had to do all this with a Democratic governor. We're going to give him the opportunity to prove the Republicans liars, that he's not a 'pay-for-play' governor, that this march and what it represents is worth more than the million dollars he's taken from the growers."

And with that they were off, the raucous sounds of the marchers echoing off the ineffably bland, postwar government buildings. By the time they finally assembled at the elegant neoclassical Capitol, their ranks had swelled to more than 5,000. From the stage came an insistent demand from the leaders of the Democratic Party, the religious community, and the state and national labor movement: Sign the bill, Gov. Davis. "This is a defining moment," declared Lt. Gov. Cruz Bustamante, to roars from the crowd.

When left to his own devices, Davis has a preferred way of helping out workers: making sure that he's helping business even more. During the march, Burton noted that Davis had already signed a bill giving racetrack workers rights to mediation and arbitration. "The difference," Burton said pointedly, "is there was also $20 million for racetrack owners in the bill. There's no money for growers in this bill. But we've given ag[ribusiness] $70 million in tax breaks each of the last three years, so they can afford to pay their workers a little more."

Davis' alliance with agribusiness is newfound. The industry didn't do much for him in the most crucial race of his life, the 1998 Democratic primary for governor against super-rich rivals Al Checchi and Jane Harman. Labor came through big-time for Davis, and the UFW was very supportive, even though other Latino leaders leaned toward Checchi. When Davis trounced his Republican opponent, agribusiness favorite Dan Lungren, in November 1998, UFW activists chanted and danced around the governor at his victory party in downtown Los Angeles' Biltmore Hotel. But this year, as the campaign of Davis' current Republican opponent faltered, agribusiness decided to go with a winner.

"Simon is nowhere," said Davis' old boss, Oakland Mayor Jerry Brown, "so ag[ribusiness] has nowhere to go. The Republicans were more competitive when I was running. Ag[ribusiness] was always a bulwark of the Republican Party when [the GOP] was highly viable. It's one of the most conservative groups in the state. How much is Gray raising, anyway?" Told it was close to $70 million (of which agribusiness contributed relatively little), Brown let out a low, "Wow." Pausing for a moment, Brown noted: "You have to balance what you need to do against what you should do."

In the end, that is what Brown's former chief of staff did. Shortly after the rally at the Capitol, Davis phoned UFW President Rodriguez and set in motion negotiations on the bill. A compromise was reached and, though he would make no public commitment, Davis finally signed the bill on Sept. 30 -- the very end of the signing period.

The farmworkers bill was just the last of a number of progressive legislative breakthroughs this year in California. The most dramatic of these before the UFW bill came to a head was Davis' decision to sign the first law in America to mandate that tailpipe emissions of greenhouse gases be cut in all new cars sold in state -- the nation's biggest market -- by 2009. At the time, the big auto and oil companies were threatening to run an initiative campaign to overturn the law, exploiting what they assumed to be the outrage among legions of SUV drivers. But when Davis signed, Detroit blinked, and environmentalists and progressives won a victory that may reshape the nation's auto market.

After nearly going under last year during the state's electric power crisis, Davis and other state leaders vowed to try to get ahead of the curve on energy. While Washington debated Alaska oil drilling, an issue with marginal impact on the nation's energy supply (and maximal impact on wildlife reserves), California enacted the biggest renewable-energy requirement in the advanced industrial world, which will double the electric power generated by wind, solar, geothermal and biomass to 20 percent of the state's supply by 2017. Davis and other Democratic leaders also decided to get out front on biomedical research, directly bucking the Bush administration and the religious right by making it state policy to promote stem-cell research and creating a state fund to support it. Given the existing strength of California research universities and the biotechnology industry, many now expect California to become a haven for such research.

Just as with the farmworkers, Davis required more convincing on the bill that made California the first state to have a comprehensive paid family-leave program. In the end, Davis was persuaded to sign by California's powerful labor movement. Now anyone with a family emergency -- including people in same-sex partnerships -- will get up to six weeks off with pay to deal with it. The money will come from a special fund financed through payroll deductions.

All these progressive accomplishments -- at a time when the national government and many state governments are either deadlocked or in retreat -- are the result of many factors, most of which seem likely only to grow stronger. Having a Democrat such as Davis (or someone better) for governor has been essential, of course, as has the legislative leadership of John Burton, an irreverent, militant liberal who is a former congressman and brother of the late Beltway powerhouse Phil Burton. The resurgence of organized labor, the emergence of Latinos as a strongly Democratic constituency in the wake of the Republicans' embrace of the anti-immigrant Proposition 187 in 1994, the decline of the Republican Party as an effective political force, a reapportionment plan that all but guarantees big Democratic legislative majorities -- all made possible the major accomplishments of 2002. With Davis likely to win re-election over Simon this November, and with an even more left-leaning Legislature on tap, the California stage is set for more liberal breakthroughs in the next few years.