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Would a Cesar Chavez Day level the playing field for Minnesota’s farmworkers?

A 57-1 Senate vote to forever acknowledge March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day in Minnesota is most remarkable. But there are some ironies that cannot be overlooked.

Cesar Chavez visiting Colegio Cesar Chavez in Mount Angel, Ore., in 1974.
Wikimedia Commons

Times and attitudes do change – at least when there’s no money involved.

Monday, for example, state senators voted 57 to 1 to forever acknowledge March 31 as Cesar Chavez Day in Minnesota. The House is expected to soon follow the Senate’s action.

There’s much that’s remarkable about this. Only a few years ago, any effort to praise Chavez would have drawn some hoots, hollers and debate. After all, Chavez was a rabble-rousing union organizer trying to bring dignity and higher wages to farm workers.

But not a single senator rose to challenge Sen. Patricia Torres Ray, DFL-Minneapolis, when she introduced the bill that would forever make Chavez’s birthday a day to be honored in Minnesota.

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The only “no” vote was cast by Sen. Branden Petersen, R-Andover. His was a vote of principle. “While there are undoubtedly some controversial aspects of Chavez’s life, namely his anti-capitalist sentiments, I am more opposed to the idea of naming particular days after certain individuals,’’ Petersen wrote in an e-mail regarding his vote. “There are countless thousands of individuals who have lived very accomplished lives. To single out Chavez is to suggest that his accomplishments are set apart and somehow better than those not named.’’

Both Torres Ray and Rep. Carlos Mariani, DFL-St. Paul, who will carry the Senate bill onto the House floor before the end of session, say that Chavez is unique. Chavez, who died in 1993, was among the first Latinos, they say, to become an important national leader whose voice and actions gave dignity to Latinos across the country.

An embedded irony

But now to the money portion of all of this.

The very same people who were so willing to observe Chavez Day will almost certainly show little empathy for the state’s farm workers when a minimum wage bill finally is passed.

Most of the state’s wage workers are required to receive overtime when working in excess of 40 hours a week. Farm workers must work 48 hours a week before the overtime clock starts running. In the initial minimum wage proposal from the House, farm workers would also have been protected by the 40-hour week standard. Even the Minnesota Farmers Union has said that the 40-hour workweek should be standard for all workers.

But Big Ag has stepped in, and legislators of both parties are listening to what Big Ag has to say: Farm workers shouldn’t receive the same benefits as workers in other industries.

The irony – vote for Chavez Day, reject a level playing field for farm workers – leaves people such as Bernie Hesse, political director for the United Food & Commercial Workers, shaking heads. “I think they see it as absolution,’’ said Hesse of how politicians can almost universally support a Chavez Day and turn down the very workers Chavez represented.

Mariani agrees with Hesse that there’s some hypocrisy at play in all of this. “There are contradictions,’’ he said. “I would gladly trade the observation (of Chavez Day) for the 40-hour week.’’

Driver’s license issues

There is another piece of legislation surrounding undocumented workers that’s likely headed nowhere this session. Sen. Bobby Joe Champion, DFL-Minneapolis, is pushing legislation that would allow undocumented people access to state driver’s licenses. Without that access, supporters say, people are forced to decide between not being able to drive or driving without a license or insurance.

But even Gov. Mark Dayton is showing resistance to that. The governor’s reluctance appears to center around the fact that the driver’s license has become a virtual form of legal identification.

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Mariani says there are ways around that concern. Some states, he said, have clearly stamped driver’s licenses for the undocumented as “only for driving purposes.”

Signs of progress

Despite the minimum wage and driver’s license issues, Mariani said it’s important to acknowledge there have been big steps forward. A huge step came last session when the Minnesota Dream Act was passed. In that law, children of undocumented Minnesotans are allowed to pay in-state tuition at Minnesota colleges and universities.

And even a 57 to 1 vote supporting a Chavez Day in Minnesota is a sign of progress, Mariani noted. Several years ago, he said he prepared a resolution noting Chavez’s birthday. These resolutions are a dime a dozen at the Capitol. But when Chavez’s name was mentioned, there were a number of legislators who shouted their displeasure.

Now, it’s OK to honor the man if not the people he represented.