ustxtxb_obs_1985_05_17_50_00007-00000_000.pdf

Page 26

by

BEHIND THE TARPON INN PORT ARANSAS OPEN DAILY Rebecca Flores Harrington, Cesar Chavez, and Jim Harrington in 1982 Labor Day parade, San Antonio. Pho to by Alan Pog ue agreeing to go along with the bill. But in doing so, the group outraged Lt. Gov. Bill Hobby and other state leaders and began to be seen as too extreme a group for their own good. Hinojosa claims the incident led to a loss of credibility for the Bureau and in the end made it easier to pass the workers’ comp bill and the unemployment comp bill. UNDOUBTEDLY THE successful UFW lawsuits made it easier, too. Rep. Lloyd Criss, the La Marque Democrat who sponsored the unemployment bill in the House this session, said at a Capitol press conference the day White signed the bill that “it would probably have taken another 50 years without the push of the lawsuit” to get the bill through the House. State District Judge Harley Clark of Austin ruled on March 7, 1984, that the exclusion of farmworkers from the workers’ comp law was unconstitutional, and on January 16 of this year he made the same decision about the unemployment compensation law. In a strong position because of the court ruling, TCLU lawyer Harrington entered negotiations coordinated by Lt. Gov. Hobby’s office in March. The Farm Bureau called in their Washington lobbyist, Vernie Glasson. Rep. Criss had been working with the Texas Association of Business, which had an interest in seeing the bill pass so that non-farm businesses would not end up paying more taxes into the unemployment fund something they feared if Texas farmers remained exempted from the tax while farmworkers were covered under Clark’s decision. Criss also didn’t mince words when he addressed a Farm Bureau convention January 29. Criss assured the Bureau that farmers will not be hit with major costs. “And you are getting off easier than other employers,” he said. “Remember, because of the agricultural workers’ exclusion you have not been required to pay this insurance for nearly 50 years. Taxpayers have picked up the tab in lieu of your contributions.” Criss said farmers would pay an average of 27 cents per day for each employee to support the unemployment fund. Conservative farm groups, of course, argued that the increased tax would come at a time when farmers are especially unable to afford it. But according to Jim Harrington, the law could strengthen the economy of the Rio Grande Valley in ways that have not gotten much attention. Harrington points out that one of the original purposes of the Depression-era law was to stabilize communities by protecting families in hard times while preventing a local tax drain. Cameron County Judge Moises Vela testified in January in Clark’s court that the unemployment law would have precisely this effect in the Valley. “The little bit of money that would be coming in if they were on unemployment would circulate through the community,” Vela said. Harrington says the new law will also lead to a “professionalization” of the workforce, because it will be to the growers’ advantage to keep more permanent workers so as to avoid a higher tax for paying out too much in unemployment claims. Harrington admits this would also be likely to reduce the total number of farmworkers getting work. Instead of hiring a thousand workers for a two-hour picking, he speculates, it might be to the growers’ advantage to hire 300 workers to put in a full day. In this case, instead of having all members of a farmworker family in the fields, one or two members could work the longer hours. The total income would remain the same, Harrington says, and there would also be more incentive to keep the younger members of the family in school. Both the workers’ comp and unemployment comp could force agriculture in Texas to become more efficient. It is already happening because of the workers’ comp, Harrington says, as growers take steps to reduce accidents by creating a safer workplace. And the more stable workforce that the unemployment law might yield is also likely to be more efficient in the long run, he says. Rebecca Harrington of the UFW lists six victories for farmworkers since their 1979 convention: the abolition of the short-handled hoe, the requirement of toilets and of drinking water in the fields, the recent pesticide regulations established by the Texas Department of Agriculture, and the workers’ comp and unemployment comp laws. In the present session of the legisla ture Rep. Alex Moreno, D-Edinburg, has introduced a law bringing the state minimum wage from $1.40 an hour to $3.35, but the bill seems destined to wait until next session. In moments of celebration, farmworker advocates are also given to calling for a collective bargaining bill that would allow the UFW to bargain contracts with the big growers. At the celebration at the union hall in May Jim Harrington held this up as the most important goal for farmworkers. In the wake of back-toback victories in the courts and in the legislature, the farmworkers’ response of “Si se puede” seemed more heartfelt than ever. THE TEXAS OBSERVER 7