Coachella Valley Farm Worker Latest Victim to Succumb to Probable Heat-Related Causes

BAKERSFIELD–Maria de Jesus Alvarez, 63, has become the latest farm worker victim of this scorching summer.

Alvarez had been picking table grapes for Anthony Vineyards and was employed through farm labor contractor Manuel Torres during the afternoon of July 15. She began feeling ill and went home. According to witnesses, she was working in a crew of 150 workers and they had no shade nor had they received training in heat stroke prevention and precautions as mandated by state law.

After her condition deteriorated, Alvarez was taken to a hospital on July 29. The doctor determined she was severely dehydrated and had suffered heat stroke.

After being treated and admitted by two different hospitals, Alvarez died on Aug. 2.

“Once again we must bury another farm worker, who died needlessly and all because a criminal grower and labor contractor did not respect and honor the importance of the life of a farm worker,” said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. “We ask Gov. Schwarzenegger when this black summer will end.”

Six farm workers deaths are being or have been investigated because of heat-related causes since May. This brings to 15 the number of farm workers whose death have been investigated as heat-related since CA Governor Schwarzenegger took office.

California could change farm worker union votes

By DON THOMPSON – Associated Press Writer, Published 7:51 pm PDT Monday, August 18, 2008

Democratic senators cited a series of heat-related deaths in the fields as they approved a bill Monday that could make it easier for unions to organize California farm workers.

The bill would let farm workers choose union representation without the traditional ballot-booth elections.

The measure by former Assembly Speaker Fabian Nunez, D-Los Angeles, passed on a party-line, 23-15 vote. It faces a possible veto by Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said helping farm workers organize is the best way to improve working conditions and avoid more field deaths. California could hire dozens more inspectors to enforce regulations designed to prevent heat deaths and not have as much effect, Steinberg said.

“Six people dead this summer. Fifteen since 2003. It’s time to try something different,” said Steinberg, who is in line to become the Senate’s next leader.

Steinberg cited United Farm Worker estimates for the death totals. CalOSHA spokesman Paul Feist said the state has confirmed two heat-related farm worker deaths this summer and is investigating three others. The state has confirmed or is investigating 11 possible heat-related deaths in all industries this year.

After the vote, senators applauded United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, who was in the gallery watching the debate.

The union sought the election law change after alleging that one of the nation’s largest producers of table grapes pressured laborers into defeating an attempt to organize workers three years ago.

The Nunez legislation would set up a process in which unions could request what’s called a “mediated election” that bill supporters likened to voting absentee. Workers would fill out a ballot to decide if they wanted to authorize a union at that point or make the decision through the traditional ballot-booth vote.

That would reduce the potential pressure that workers could face from growers as they walked into a voting booth, bill supporters said.

“Just like an absentee ballot, you get your ballot, you vote at home, you turn it back in,” UFW organizing director Armando Elenes said by telephone. “In this process that currently exists…you’re talking about incredible amounts of coercion and intimidation right before the voting starts.”

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