THE COURAGE OF ROSE BIRD
By Dick Meister
This month marks the third anniversary of the death of one of the greatest
yet generally unacknowledged champions California's working people have ever
had -- Rose Bird, former chief justice of the state's Supreme Court.
Much has been made of Bird's unyielding opposition to capital punishment, a
stand that was most responsible for voters ousting her from the court in
1986. But close attention also should be paid to her role in granting basic
rights to farmworkers and others who had long been denied them.
Bird's public efforts on their behalf began two years before she joined
the court in 1977, during her tenure as Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's
secretary of agriculture. Bird, the first woman to hold any cabinet-level
position in California, was also one of the few non-growers who've held the
Bird assuredly was the only secretary, before or since, to be concerned
with protecting farmworkers from their politically powerful and notoriously
It was under her leadership, for instance, that the state banned use of
the short-handled hoe, a torturous tool that kept thousands of field workers
bent almost double for most of their working day.
Most growers had abandoned the hoe for tools that allowed workers to stand
upright, but California's lettuce growers insisted that it was needed for
speed and efficiency. They had prevailed during previous administrations,
despite physicians' reports of workers who suffered ruptured spinal disks,
arthritis of the spine and other serious back injuries because they were
forced to use what the United Farm Workers called "this despised tool."
Growers and their Republican and big business allies were outraged at Bird
over the hoe ban. They were even angrier over her work in helping draft the
landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act that finally granted union rights
to the state's farmworkers.
They waged a heated campaign to try to block Bird's confirmation as chief
justice a few months later, then embarked on a decade-long drive to remove
her from the court. They ran one of the most vicious election campaigns in
California history in finally convincing voters to oust Bird and two other
liberal justices, Cruz Reynoso and Joseph Grodin.
Although using Bird's opposition to the death penalty as the campaign's
main theme and enlisting prosecutors to lead it, the wealthy growers and
other business interests who bankrolled the effort were concerned mainly
with the court's pro-labor stance.
Among the decisions that angered them was one that upheld the right of state
employees to bargain collectively in the face of challenges raised by
Republican Attorney General George Duekmejian and others.
They were downright infuriated by a later ruling that state and local
government employees had the right to strike as ;long as they did not
endanger public health and safety. Only firefighters were specifically
Bird argued that all workers, be they in government or private industry,
have nothing less than a constitutional right to strike.
"The individual's freedom to withhold personal service is basic to the
constitutional concept of liberty," Bird wrote. "Without this freedom,
working people would be at the total mercy of their employers, unable either
to bargain effectively or to extricate themselves from an intolerable
situation. Such a situation would make a mockery out of the fundamental
right to pursue life, liberty and happiness...."
Business interests attacked the decision as what one of their newspaper
backers called "an act of monumental judicial presumptuousness ... only the
latest example of the anti-business bias of the state high court under the
leadership of Rose Bird."
Organized labor, however, was highly pleased that "civil rights have finally
come to public employees in California," as one of their union leaders
declared. "We are no longer second-class citizens."
The decision was handed down as Bird's opponents were mounting their
election campaign against her, but that did not deter her from taking the
strongest possible stand in favor of public employee rights -- one stronger
than even her fellow liberal justices.
That was typical of Bird, who invariably refused to compromise on what she
felt were vital principles. It was that inflexibility which helped secure
basic rights for innumerable working people, and she would not abandon it
even though it eventually would cause her downfall.
Even many of those who led the drive that finally removed her from office
recognized Rose Bird's integrity, eloquence, brilliance and, above all,
unflagging devotion to what she believed to be fair and just whatever
the cost to her.
Copyright 2002 Dick Meister, a San Francisco-based freelance columnist who
has covered labor issues for four decades as a reporter, editor and