Cesar Chavez is the closest thing liberals have to a saint. Fifty years ago, he organized the United Farm Workers to represent the interests of the workers who harvested grapes, strawberries and other fruit. It's hard work under a broiling sun. Chavez is so revered on the left that President Obama named a U.S. Navy cargo ship for him, and even pilfered his slogan, "Yes, we can," for his political campaigns.
But whatever legacy Chavez had of upholding "workers' rights" has long since vanished. The United Farm Workers, which once stood firmly for the interests of the little guy, is now coercing field laborers into paying dues against their wishes.
The tussle is taking place in the San Joaquin Valley fields of Gerawan Farming, one of the nation's largest growers of peaches, plums and nectarines. State of California bureaucrats are assisting the United Farm Workers in making an offer the workers dare not refuse.
Nearly a quarter-century ago, Gerawan employees voted to join the union, but the process was never completed. No union contract was signed. No dues were collected. The matter was suspended for two decades, and now the United Farm Workers cites the forgotten election as a reason for the workers to hand over 3 percent of their pay in union dues.
The workers, many of whom weren't even alive for that 1990 vote, petitioned the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board for a decertification election, arguing that the union had done nothing for them to justify paying the dues. Gerawan's workers cast their votes last November, but the board refuses to count them. The ballots have been locked up, collecting dust in a warehouse for eight months.
The board says it's investigating "irregularities" in the election, and the delay enables the agency to force Gerawan into mandatory bargaining with the United Farm Workers.
This is a classic pattern of abuse. "Unions elect politicians who then make laws and regulations that benefit those unions, often at the expense of workers and taxpayers," says Matt Patterson, director of the Center for Worker Freedom at Americans for Tax Reform. "The workers at Gerawan have made it very clear they don't need the union coming between them and their employer. But that doesn't seem to matter to the state of California."
It's not clear that the unions will get away with these tactics much longer. The U.S. Supreme Court recently ruled against the Service Employees International Union for attempting to forcibly unionize home health care workers. This high-profile loss followed the United Auto Workers' failure to persuade employees at a Volkswagen assembly plant in Chattanooga, Tenn., to vote for the union. The national trend is running in the direction of worker freedom.
Union membership continues to shrink. This is making unions increasingly desperate. When the heirs of Mr. Chavez attempt to intercept the paychecks of Fresno's field laborers, they may be reaching into one pocket too far. These laborers stand firm to say, "No, you can't."