Tough negotiations get immigration reform moving

Published online: Sep 28, 2013

IRVINE, Calif.-Some 34 years ago, a young lawyer named Tom Nassif helped initiate a successful lawsuit against the United Farm Workers of America, headed by Cesar Chavez, over the union's strike against vegetable growers in California's Imperial Valley that had turned violent.

A lower court and a state appellate court ultimately decided against the union and awarded Maggio Farms $1.6 million to cover crop losses, the hiring of security guards, damage to vehicles and housing expenses for replacement workers.

More than three decades later, it was Nassif, now president and CEO of Western Growers Association, who negotiated with Cesar Chavez's son-in-law and successor as president of UFW, Arturo Rodriguez, to rescue the Senate's comprehensive immigration bill from collapse.

The Western Growers Association represents growers, packers and shippers of produce in California and Arizona-about half the produce grown in the U.S.

With a background as a private labor attorney and deputy assistant secretary of state in the Ronald Reagan administration, Nassif was one of the CEOs of 12 agricultural associations that formed the Agricultural Workforce Coalition to push immigration reform. Farmers and processors see immigration reform as a key to obtaining an adequate number of workers during harvest and other times of the year.

It took several months of negotiations among the associations to reach agreement on the framework for the agricultural portion of what became the Senate immigration bill.

Then came the harder part-reaching an agreement between the coalition and the UFW.

Nassif was among several agricultural leaders who earlier this year met repeatedly with the UFW and Sen. Dianne Feinstein, D-Calif., in the senator's office. Sens. Michael Bennet, D-Colo., Orrin Hatch, R-Utah, and Marco Rubio, R-Fla., frequently participated.

By the start of April, negotiations between the coalition and the UFW broke down over wages for workers under a proposed visa program for foreign guest workers and caps on how many guest workers would be allowed.

"Senator Feinstein asked what could be done as a last ditch effort to save the discussions," Nassif recalled. "We knew without an agricultural component, there would be no comprehensive immigration reform.

"So I suggested that if my group gave me authorization and the union was willing, I would sit down one-on-one with Arturo Rodriguez and that I believed we could reach a deal."

The two met a few days later in what Nassif described as a "dingy little union hall" near Los Angeles International Airport. Nassif was accompanied by Monte Lake, attorney for the Agricultural Coalition for Immigration Reform. Rodriguez came with one of his vice presidents, Giev Kashkooli.

A strong Antiochian (Eastern) Orthodox Christian, Nassif asked Rodriguez if they could begin their meeting with prayer. Rodriguez agreed.

"So we prayed together before we entered into negotiations. By the end of the evening, we negotiated the wage rate for field workers, the most important rate in the agreement," Nassif said.

They agreed to $9.17 per hour for field workers with an annual escalation of at least 1.5 percent but no more than 2.5 percent.

The next day they met at a hotel to discuss other wage rates and the visa cap but did not reach agreement.

Negotiations resumed in Feinstein's office in Washington, D.C., where agreement was reached on the other wages with several senators present. Then agreement on the visa cap was reached with attorneys for several groups participating.

"These were the major issues. I had dealt with the UFW for many, many years. So both Arturo and Giev knew me and had faith I was being honest. I told them what I could do and couldn't do. I took them to be straightforward and honest in what they could and couldn't do," Nassif said.

"I think what cemented us being able to reach agreement was the fact all of us knew how important immigration reform is not just for agriculture but for the country. We both made concessions and ended up in a fair, balanced agreement."

Rodriguez said Feinstein reached out to him and Nassif during the impasse. They both consulted by phone with other groups on their own sides during the two days of negotiations in Los Angeles, Rodriguez said. Growers insisted on "a specific wage as opposed to a calculated wage based on more accurate data," Rodriguez said.

"We were reluctant to such an agreement, but Tom insisted they needed that and that by doing so we would reach agreement on other items," he said.

Growers did insist on a wage, but the problem was finding an appropriate index that wasn't faulty, Nassif said. They finally settled on a wage first and then an index.

"Among the essential agreements for the UFW was that the agreement we made was for both the Senate and House and we were pleased to see Tom win that commitment from all the major grower associations," Rodriguez said.

The idea was to try to get the Senate bill in the House but some members of the ag coalition said the House should be able to negotiate its own bill, Nassif said.

He said he and Rodriguez have a "very good relationship" and "butt heads all the time at the state level" over things like the UFW's desire to amend California's Agriculture Labor Relations Act to allow card checks to replace elections in unionizing workers.

"Yes, we have butted heads on many issues," Rodriguez said. "Trust is very important. We trust Tom to represent Western Growers Association accurately and we trusted that Tom had enough knowledge of the key issues for all of the grower associations around the country and that he would represent them accurately.

"Tom is a strong negotiator. He earns every penny the WGA pays him and then some. And his task in this negotiation was complicated. The needs of agriculture are very diverse throughout the country," Rodriguez said.

"Now that we are once again in a difficult moment-the House does not seem motivated to pass legislation that solves both the agricultural employers' and agricultural workers' main issues-we'll see if Tom and the major grower association leaders can deliver the Republican House votes needed to pass a solution that works for employers and workers," Rodriguez said.

The converse is also true, Nassif noted. The union, he said, needs to convince Democrats in the House to vote for what they consider is a less-than-perfect bill to get it into a Senate-House conference committee.

Nassif said he hopes the House votes on an immigration bill in October.