Thursday was César Chávez day, and farmworkers want to know why Governor Gavin Newsom has not met with them, as they requested, if only for the token unity of standing alongside some of the the state’s most essential and vulnerable workers to celebrate the birthday of their beloved icon.
Quick response: Newsom traveled to Central and South America yesterday for a family vacation.
Longer answer: For months the governor has been at odds with the United Farm Workers union over his unexpected veto of a bill last year that would have allowed mail-in ballots for workers’ union elections agricultural.
After the governor failed to sign off on this UFW legislation last fall, union members marched in protest from the French Laundry, the very expensive restaurant where Newsom was caught dining during the pandemic, down to PlumpJack Winery, which Newsom co-founded – hammering away at him on the elite aura that has long been his Achilles heel.
My colleague Jean Guerrero was there and wrote at the time that “Newsom had a moral duty, given the importance of these workers, to work with United Farm Workers to ensure the success of the bill.”
I couldn’t have said it better.
But since the burst of attention that this march has caused, there has been no reconciliation with the governor. The farmhands have been fighting a lonely battle ever since – except for one unlikely ally.
Days the cat.
Jorts is a fluffy, orange internet feline who really, really loves organized work. And the garbage cans, in which he regularly falls. And his sister Jean, who tries to stay off social media.
But Jorts doesn’t like Newsom, or his treatment of farmhands.
“I think he founded a winery. I think he’s a boss,” Jorts told me in a direct message on Twitter (the human behind the account remains anonymous). “When it matters, he didn’t side with the laborers who pick the grapes who build wealth that pays for his haircuts.”
Jorts’ notoriety skyrocketed after a Reddit thread about him went viral late last year, in which his unnamed human detailed an argument with another fellow human, Pam, over whether Jorts was just too stupid to learn any new skills. From there, Jorts hit Twitter and began a meteoric rise as one of the preeminent union voices on social media (just kidding a little).
He amassed nearly 170,000 followers, including the AFL-CIO, its president, Liz Shuler, and new California labor leader Lorena Gonzalez. He has more followers than the two combined.
As Devin Nunes cow, Jorts has weight.
I’m not a fan of the extreme right, but they have political lessons for us. The first is that there is a whole new political world run by memes – cattle, frogs and maybe even cats. Where traditional ways of heckling are harder to come by in a cluttered environment of pandemic and war, a viral message can sway opinion.
An internet chat may seem like a gimmick or a side note in a serious legislative battle, but Chávez said it best: “Somehow the guys in power have to be hit by a check , or by a change in their hearts and minds, or change will not come.”
Jorts is a counterforce for UFW, who needs all the help they can get. And internet cats are really good at capturing hearts and minds because they tend to keep things simple and cute, even when they’re not.
Like many political intrigues, the situation between Newsom and the farmworkers is complicated. Newsom and the union disagree on his office’s willingness to work on the bill he vetoed last year. Those involved say the union was unwilling to compromise, while others say the compromises on the table would have gutted the proposed law. It is undisputed that since that veto, the UFW and the governor have not spoken to each other directly, despite union requests to meet.
Monterey Bay Assemblyman Mark Stone reintroduced an almost identical measure this year and told me yesterday that he felt optimistic he could get his bill signed this time, adding that the governor’s staff have been “very courteous and open to working with us”.
UFW is not taking any risks and is planning heavy public pressure to make its displeasure with Newsom known. On Thursday, union members held events in 13 cities, including the Capitol, hammering home the fact that Newsom is not with them on this important day.
A spokesperson for Newsom said he had promised his children the leave after “the last two years of vacation postponed by the pandemic, the fires and the recall”. In a letter to the union on March 28, its staff wrote that they “look forward to meeting with UFW leaders in the near future.”
All of this may sound like typical political theater, were it not for the very precarious position of farmworkers in California right now.
The UFW has been losing members for decades and only has about 7,000 on its rosters, Philip Martin, a farm labor expert at UC Davis, told me. California has about 400,000 farm workers.
The reasons for this decline are multiple and long debated. Some argue that, although brilliant in organizing, Chávez lacked the ability to lead the union once it was formed, and never recovered. Others point out that Republican governors such as George Deukmejian are too friendly with producers, decimating organizational protections over time.
There is also the fact that the large corporations that Chávez first targeted have mostly ceased to exist. Perhaps more profoundly, California agriculture has embraced a new labor system in which third-party “contractors” act as intermediaries between producers and farmworkers, making it more difficult for a particular owner to unionize.
Farmworkers live a fragile existence, many undocumented – often housed in company or state-owned housing, dependent on an employer for transport, afraid to show up on a boss’s property to vote in a union election. In recent years, the pandemic has hit them harder than others, as they often lack workplace protections and access to vaccines, and are vulnerable to evictions and homelessness, despite efforts of the state with regard to equity.
This legislation, they say, could help them begin a slow rebuilding by removing elections from landowners and putting them in letterboxes, providing a path to better working conditions that have continued to elude them despite years of fighting.
Maria Garcia, a farm worker who works four months a year in a union job pruning roses and the rest of her time at a non-union site, said she often sees her co-workers keep quiet about abuse because they feared reprisals. She feels betrayed by the governor’s veto.
“We put food on the table, even the governor’s,” she said. If she met him, she would ask him why he vetoed a bill that she said “would have protected us.”
Faced with dwindling numbers, the UFW focused more on state politics, as opposed to local organizing. The legislature is more Latino than ever, with several members having families of immigrants and even farm workers. But the power of UFW rests more on goodwill and history than on actual weight. He doesn’t have deep pockets, and increasingly, farm workers are struggling to capture public attention for fights like this over complicated union rules.
At the same time, Newsom’s political power soared. After fighting The Recall (where UFW knocked on doors for him), he became virtually untouchable. His public approval ratings are high and he has no significant challenger for another term. It has left some, even in his own party, grumbling that he hardly needs to compromise with anyone, let alone a union that has attacked him personally.
Which brings us back to Jorts the Cat.
When Jorts sent a direct message to the union about a question he received from a follower, UFW was quick to respond. Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for UFW, said she has been communicating directly with Jorts for a few months. She loves his “joyful mayhem” and the amplification of their message, but concedes it’s hard working with a cat.
“Nobody can tell a cat what to do,” she said. “As much as I absolutely love her photographing his face on Gavin Newsom’s body, it’s not on the message.
It may not be the dignified communication the union normally adopts, but it is effective. At 8 a.m. on César Chávez Day, Jorts had already sent several requests for support to farmworkers and added another. haircut for a governor who has few open critics within his own party. Because, as Jorts and I agree, every politician needs criticism, especially those powerful enough to ignore it.
“You might notice that I don’t really spend a lot of time talking about bonkers Republicans,” Jorts told me Wednesday night. “I spend more time talking about who should be accountable to the workers.”