President Obama visited Keene, Calif., on Monday to pay tribute to famed civil rights and labor leader Cesar Chavez, while trying to shore up support among the ever-important Latino voting bloc.
Obama joined in dedicating the Chavez National Monument at Nuestra Reina de la Paz, which served as home base to the United Farm Workers union that Chavez helped found. Thousands of Californians turned out for the event.
While farm workers no doubt appreciated Obama's visit to honor an iconic labor organizer, advocates for farm laborers haven't forgotten the administration's back-tracking earlier this year on reforms that would have restricted the use of child labor in agriculture.
The Labor Department originally proposed further limiting what kinds of duties children can perform in the fields -- for instance, not allowing minors to operate heavy farm machinery or handle tobacco crops -- but the agency scrapped the proposal in April after intense political pressure from the agriculture lobby and an outcry from farmers, particularly in the Midwest and West.
Rena Steinzor, president of the left-leaning Center for Progressive Reform, wrote Sunday ahead of the Chavez event that the president "took the side of big agriculture against the safety of farmworkers" just months earlier:
The Administration has recognized the danger of this work before, and the [Labor Department] proposal would have updated 40-year-old “hazardous orders” designed to protect hired children.... The fatality rate for young agricultural workers is four times greater than for their peers in other workplaces. The [Labor Department]'s proposal would have prohibited children under 18 years old from working for hire to perform some of agriculture industry's most dangerous jobs.
The White House and the Obama campaign declined to comment on Steinor's post pegged to the Chavez event.
Several progressive regulatory watchdogs told HuffPost at the time that they were disappointed in the Labor Department's scrapping of the rule, feeling the administration had caved out of political concerns. The child labor rules had the potential to become a campaign issue in certain states, with a handful of Republican office seekers using it to criticize Democrats as out of touch with rural America. Rep. Denny Rehberg (R-Mont.), who's hoping to unseat Sen. Jon Tester (D-Mont.), had promised to block enactment of the rules through legislation.
In a statement explaining the withdrawal of the rule, Labor Secretary Hilda Solis said in April that the decision was "made in response to thousands of comments expressing concerns about the effect of the proposed rules on small family-owned farms."
Speaking in Keene on Monday, Obama noted that farm workers long toiled in anonymity, without being afforded even basic labor protections. "No one seemed to care about the invisible farm workers who picked the nation's food -- bent down in the beating sun, living in poverty, cheated by growers, abandoned in old age, unable to demand even the most basic rights," the president said. "Cesar cared. In his own peaceful and eloquent way he made other people care, too."
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