Labor troubled by farm worker bill

SALEM, OR -- Chants of "Down with SB 1205" reverberated on the Capitol steps as scores of farm workers and friends rallied against a bill that would overturn an Oregon Court of Appeals ruling upholding the right of farm workers to discuss wages and working conditions with employers without threat of being fired.

Despite the labor protest, Senate Bill 1205 passed both the Republican-controlled House and Senate. Hopefully it will be vetoed by Democratic Governor John Kitzhaber.

Brad Witt, secretary-treasurer of the Oregon AFL-CIO, described SB1205 as legislation that extends the firing-at-will doctrine to "illogical and inhumane ends."

State Treasurer Jim Hill called it "racist" because most farm workers are Hispanic. That got him a public tongue-lashing in a Capitol corridor from SB 1205 lobbyist Joe Gilliam of the National Federation of Independent Business. Gilliam is the lobbyist whose anti-worker zealotry resulted in a 1994 violation of state election law for which a Salem judge sentenced him to two years' probation.

Farm Bureau lobbyist Andy Anderson said employers opposed the bill, "Because it would upset the balance that exists now between employers and their employees."

Rally supporters, laughing at such a statement, said farm workers are among the most unprotected of workers.

Said one opponent of the bill, "Agribusiness clients hold an economic noose around the necks of their field workers. Any 'balance' in that relationship is achieved by the workers standing on their tiptoes to keep the noose from strangling them."

Most seasonal agricultural jobs are performed by Hispanic immigrants who are not allowed to form unions and are exempt from the National Labor Relations Act and state labor laws. The bill comes as a result of the case of 11 Washington County farm workers who were fired by a Hillsboro Nursery, Oregon Roses Inc. The workers were fired after they complained that their boss had implemented a new pay system that lowered their wages. It was based on piece-rate instead of an hourly wage. The Oregon Court of Appeals ruled in favor of the fired workers and now they are seeking $30,000 in damages.


July 4, 1997 issue

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