By DAN WHEAT

Capital Press

A framework for agricultural labor reform embraced by the American Farm Bureau and the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform is an "appalling nonstarter," the national vice president of United Farm Workers of America says.

"We worked collaboratively with the ag industry for over a decade on AgJobs. A component of that was a compromise acceptable to both parties. Here employers are out on their own with no dialogue with us and would set back working conditions by decades," said Erik Nicholson, national vice president of UFW in Tacoma, Wash.

"Consumers would be stunned and sickened by the wholesale gutting of farmworker protection and where industry wants to take us. There's no wage protections. That's gone right off the bat. Why pay farmworkers less when it's one of the poorest sectors of our economy already?" Nicholson said.

The Farm Bureau and ACIR have voiced optimism about a window of opportunity in 2013 for ag labor reform as a stand-alone measure or part of broader immigration reform.

However, Craig Regelbrugge, co-chair of ACIR, has said, "support or lack of opposition from United Farm Workers will be critical."

The proposal calls for limited ag-only work authorization for undocumented workers already in the U.S. and a new agricultural visa program to allow more ag workers into the U.S. on 12-month contracts or working without contracts for numerous registered employers for up to 11 months.

But Nicholson said discussion should center on the AgJobs bill and that ACIR and states within Farm Bureau supported it in the past.

AgJobs calls for reform of the H-2A guestworker program by allowing employers to provide a housing allowance for workers rather than housing and would roll back the adverse effect wage rate by $1 to $2 per hour, subject to government studies. Employers attesting to the need of workers would replace U.S. Department of Labor certification for need.

But H-2A can never handle the volume of workers needed and is not available to year-round workers, said Kristi Boswell, Farm Bureau director of congressional relations.

The ag industry coalition has reached out to UFW and wants to negotiate with them but needs UFW to recognize that a new visa program is needed, not H-2A reform, Boswell said.

In turn, she said, the coalition is open to negotiation on wages.

"There is disagreement on wages," Boswell said. "What we propose is market-based wages that is exactly what domestic workers get, the higher of state or federal minimum wage, as a floor."

Regelbrugge said key senators have begun convening farmworker and employer interests.

"From our perspective the last four years of H-2A administration by a most hostile Labor Department has shaken the confidence with respect to statutory reforms being honored going forward," Regelbrugge said. "DOL ignores the statute and the regs, afterall."

"The UFW made many compromises in AgJobs, so it is not surprising if they seem less than eager to put additional concessions on the table after an election that was more in their favor than ours," Regelbrugge said. "But we continue to have major interests in common, so I'm optimistic."

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