It was late when I arrived at Chicago’s O’Hare airport from Washington, D.C., on March 13 after meetings on immigration reform legislation. The weather was lousy and I was still bothered by the knee surgery I had in January. It was my fourteenth trip across the country since December when we had begun the effort to form a coalition of agricultural groups to have serious talks with Senator Dianne Feinstein and her “gang” of senators Marco Rubio, Michael Bennet, and Orin Hatch joined by the workers’ representatives led by Arturo Rodriguez of the UFW. Sen. Feinstein was intent on hammering out the ag portion of the U.S. Senate’s comprehensive immigration reform bill but wanted a united position by ag first, which we had achieved with the creation of the Agricultural Workforce Coalition of more than 30 organizations in February.
I was supposed to connect to a flight to Sacramento for the meeting of the Western Growers Board of Directors the next day. When checking my emails, I read one from a member of the coalition informing me that there would be another meeting in Sen. Feinstein’s office at 9:00 the next morning. There had been nothing easy about the endless hours of talks and negotiations among the many ag trade association CEOs, the UFW, the four senators and the staff members that attended these talks. In my 11 years as CEO of Western Growers, I had never missed a board meeting. But I was doggedly determined to give this effort 100 percent, if not 101 percent.
I notified Matt McInerney that I would not be in Sacramento; called my secretary, Cheryl, to find a hotel room in Washington; and got on one of the last flights back to D.C. It was after midnight when I finally got to my room. My knee was killing me. I had no clean clothes in my suitcase, and had to be up by 6:00 a.m. to make an early meeting with the ag coalition. I quickly hung up my wrinkled wardrobe in the bathroom, turned on the hot water in the shower and steamed my suits and shirts back to respectability, and then tried to get some sleep. As the meetings the next day wore on it became evident — we had reached an impasse. I should have gone to Sacramento!
A week-or-so later, I received a call from Sen. Feinstein’s chief-of-staff saying they didn’t know which way to go. Was there a chance we could make a “last ditch effort” to bring negotiations back on-line? I knew if the momentum was to continue, progress made, and another impasse avoided, something had to change. I told him that if the Senator would agree, as well as the other members of the AWC, I would be willing to sit down with Arturo Rodriquez one-on-one and if we had the time, I thought we could put a deal together. I knew the UFW, and had negotiated plenty of contracts back-in-the-day, and I understood the issues. I believed if we had a nice quiet talk alone — no audience or grandstanding — where we could be as honest and forthright as possible, we could find the kind of accommodations each could make to get this done.
We got the go-ahead. The UFW was going to be in Los Angeles on Sunday, April 7. I asked Monte Lake (ag’s immigration attorney and D.C. lobbyist) to join me at a location near the L.A. Airport that had been chosen by the UFW — a local union hall. The place was hard to find. As Monte and I followed the directions, we found ourselves driving down a back alley in an inner city neighborhood. The building was old, dingy and empty. We were met by Arturo and his vice president, Giev Kashkooli. The atmosphere was somewhat daunting at first, but we talked all afternoon and into the evening until we broke through a major stumbling block: the wages for crop workers. Although Arturo was scheduled to take a red-eye back to D.C. that night, we all felt energized. So the four of us met again the next morning…this time at a nearby airport hotel on Century Boulevard with a coffee shop and lots of people nearby. We broached the subject of guest worker visa caps. They didn’t seem to be in a very good mood. I thought it might be buyer’s remorse from yesterday’s deal on wages, but they told us this was a very important issue to them. We had long, drawn-out conversations and made no progress for six straight hours. At the seventh hour they agreed that in addition to a 200,000 worker cap Sen. Feinstein had recommended they would add the H-2A workers — 50,000 to 75,000 of them. This was progress, but not enough.
We continued the talks on Wednesday in D.C. where a few others joined us. We negotiated the wages of all other workers, along with housing requirements. We ran into some last minute hiccups which nearly derailed the negotiations once again, but on Friday afternoon, April 12, we had a deal. We held a press conference the next week and invited Arturo to join us. There, he saw we were publically supporting the same thing — the ag component of U.S. Senate Bill 744, and not going out to find a better deal from the House of Representatives. This was important to our credibility. What we agreed to in the Senate, we would press for in the House.
It was a roller coaster ride, but we all ended up in a good place. We met jointly with Sen. Feinstein’s group of four and the House Gang of Four and reiterated our mutual satisfaction with the ag component. Everyone had had to give up something — the key to negotiating a real solution. It was a win-win-win situation for the worker advocates, the farmers and the senators.
Certainly one of the most difficult things to do was to keep all of ag from around the country at the table, and make sure everyone’s interests were considered. It wasn’t as if we had all been familiar with one another for years. We had to get know one another and build confidence. Almost none of them outside the members of the long-time Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform (ACIR) had had much experience with the UFW.
Gaining trust doesn’t come readily or easily. When Monte and I were sitting in that empty union hall across from Arturo, it seemed as if we would have to do the impossible. So I asked for help to do it. I prayed, and I asked the others if we could open our meeting with a prayer, which we did that Sunday and Monday. As far as I’m concerned, the Hand of God was on us. I don’t consider this a personal success — we were enabled to do this and as He tells us, “A three cord strand is not easily broken.”
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