AS YOU WATCH the lobbyists working the halls of Congress, you're probably feeling that the country would be a lot better off if the lame ducks packed up their bags and went home for Christmas forthwith. One group of vulnerable workers, however, could benefit if Congress attends to some necessary business before it adjourns. These are migrant and seasonal farm workers whose miserable plight might be improved if the Senate passes legislation strengthening the laws governing farm labor contracts.
The farm worker legislation is supported by an unusual alliance of the agricultural industry, labor unions and migrant advocacy groups. Growers want the bill because it would release them from onerous registration requirements -- including fingerprinting and proof of financial integrity -- that were really designed to crack down on itinerant farm crew leaders and contractors. Farm worker groups support the legislation because it would make it clear that the growers -- and not just the frequently judgment-proof crew leaders -- are responsible for such frequent abuses as wage skimming, misleading workers about their pay and other rights and providing substandard housing and sanitary conditions.
With the strong support of the administration, the measure passed the House without opposition. Supporters of the bill fear that if it does not pass the Senate this session, it will be impossible to rebuild the fragile coalition of growers and farm workers next year. The measure enjoys strong Senate support, but it has been kept from the Senate floor by the opposition of Sen. Sam Nunn. Sen. Nunn supports the farm worker bill, but he hopes that by delaying Senate action on it, he can force House action on a labor racketeering measure now bottled up in a House Labor subcommittee.
The Labor Management Racketeering Act that Sen. Nunn wants to push to final passage is also an important measure. It strengthens penalties for union corruption -- including labor payoffs and pension fund manipulation -- and bars labor officials convicted of certain crimes from holding office for 10 years. The bill, which is supported by the AFL- CIO leadership, passed the Senate unanimously last July, but House Labor subcommittee Chairman Phil Burton has not even held hearings on it.
Sen. Nunn is right to put pressure on the House to pass the labor racketeering bill. Other senators and congressmen would do well to support him. The farm worker legislation, however, is too important to be held hostage in that battle.