California Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last week vetoed a bill that would have given farmworkers overtime pay after working 40 hours in a week, or more than eight hours in a single day.

The bill, sponsored by state Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, would have set overtime pay at time and a half.

Under an exemption enacted in 1941, farm laborers are paid overtime only when they work more than 10 hours in a day, or more than 60 hours in a week.

Florez and other supporters of the bill were quick to paint the veto as an act of racial discrimination, and all but called Schwarzenegger a bigot.

Florez said the governor missed an opportunity to raise farmworkers to the level of other employees in the state. "He decided to keep the caste system in place." He equated the veto to an attempt at segregation.

United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez went further in a statement issued by the union: "Exclusion of farmworkers from the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which governs overtime, is part of the shameful legacy of racism that initially targeted the 85 percent of southern African Americans who were farmworkers in the 1930s. Today most farmworkers are Latinos. Excluding farmworkers from overtime was wrong in 1938; it is still wrong today."


In vetoing the measure, Schwarzenegger merely recognized the realities of the market economics that determine the profitability of farm enterprises. Everyone in the business, including farmworkers, know these well. Perishable crops must be picked when they are ready, and that often produces a race against time and Mother Nature.

Farmers are price takers, not price setters. Margins are low, and competition -- both foreign and domestic -- is keen. The bill would have saddled California growers with costs they could not pass on to their customers, costs not incurred by farmers in other states. Their only recourse would be to hire additional workers and cut everyone's hours to below 40 to reduce total costs.

We think honest parties can disagree on the merits of ending the exemption. Vigorous debate is an important part of the political process. We appreciate the interests of the farmworkers who understandably would like the law changed. But we can't appreciate partisans who label their opponents as racists and segregationists.

That cheap rhetoric may play well with their base, but does nothing to seriously advance the debate or acknowledge reality. It also unfairly demonizes the vast majority of producers who are honest players and work hard to do right by the people they hire.

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