SACRAMENTO: Alfredo Zamora, a 52-year-old unionized mushroom picker at the California Mushroom Farm in Ventura, took two unpaid weeks off work so that he could walk 200 miles up the Central Valley in triple-digit heat.
There was a day, struggling in the heat to carry a statue of Our Lady of Guadalupe, he became nauseous with heat sickness. There were nights when his sore legs failed him after camping down at the end of a 22-mile day.
On Sunday, as about 5,000 farm workers and supporters from around the state joined the 25 marchers for the final leg of the pilgrimage to the state Capitol, Zamora tapped his chest and smiled from the heart.
"I'm very happy today," he said, speaking through a translator. "I did it because it's very good for all of the other farmworkers to get the same benefits I have."
The march that began as a protest to seek fair treatment for farmworkers ended as something of a celebration, as Gov. Jerry Brown and Senate President Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, on Thursday reached agreement on compromise legislation that will strengthen the Agricultural Labor Relations Act to require speedier decisions on union-election disputes and enable regulators to certify a union victory in some cases in which an employer has been found to have engaged in unfair labor practices.
Legislators are expected to vote on the bill before their 2011 lawmaking session ends on Friday.
The compromise falls short of legislation the United Farm Workers sought earlier this summer, which would have allowed for certification of a farmworker union once a majority of workers had signed petitions, eliminating the need for workplace elections. That measure was vetoed by Brown.
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez called the compromise a significant victory.
"We've walked a lot of steps over the last 13 days," he said. "What Brown and Steinberg decided to do takes a big step for farmworkers to gain fair treatment. If the governor implements the law, we certainly expect farmworkers to improve their conditions."
Lauro Barajas, the UFW's spokesman in Ventura County, said the legislation will put workers on more equal footing in union elections. "We've been losing some elections where it's clear that growers violated the law, and nothing happened," he said. "This remedy that they're proposing, that's going to be huge."
The march to the Capitol was the fourth since 1966, when founder Cesar Chavez led a historic pilgrimage.
Rudy Salvio, a postal worker from Oxnard, was among several hundred supporters from Ventura County who rode on eight chartered buses overnight on Saturday. He proudly recalls that as a toddler, alongside his farmworker mother, he marched with Chavez.
Salvio said the children and grandchildren of immigrant farmworkers must honor their roots by speaking out to improve the working conditions of those who toil in the fields.
"I believe it's a torch we need to pass on to the next generation," he said. "We need to go into the high schools and colleges to get younger people involved."
UC Davis agricultural economist Philip Martin estimates that there are about 400,000 agricultural workers in California, including those employed in fishing and forestry. About 75 percent are foreign-born. In Ventura County, he estimates that about 10,000 workers are employed in the strawberry industry, earning an average of $359 per week. The vast majority do not have union contracts.
Guillermo Lecera, a 50-year-old unionized strawberry picker from Oxnard, said conditions have improved since he has been represented by the UFW. "When we have problems, we can go straight to the manager," he said through a translator. "We make more money and have more dignity and respect."
On Tuesday, Zamora said he intends to return to work at the mushroom farm. It's hard work, but this week it might seem a little easier. He might think back on the days over the last two weeks when the temperature topped 100 and the marchers needed to cover more than 22 miles. "Those days," he said, "it was harder than picking mushrooms."