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New paid holiday in California

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LOS ANGELES — State legislators Thursday overwhelmingly approved a new paid holiday marking the birthday of the late union leader and human rights activist Cesar Chavez, making him the first Latino ever to receive that honor.

Sponsored by state Sen. Richard Polanco, D-Los Angeles, and pushed by Democrats, the bill also includes provisions for educational material and community activities for California schools.

Gov. Gray Davis has vowed to sign the bill within the next 12 days, possibly at a ceremony during next week's Democratic National Convention.

"The governor is looking forward to signing the bill, and he feels strongly it could be next week," said Davis spokesman Roger Salazar.

The bill designates the Friday preceding or Monday following March 31 a paid holiday for state employees. Public schools would be encouraged to teach students about Chavez's life.

As part of the talks that created the bill, the state also approved some $45 million in housing subsidies for farm workers, and legislators are looking at developing a job program for migrant workers for work between crop seasons, said Polanco aide Bill Mabie.

The bill includes $5 million for such nonprofit organizations as the Conservation Corps to develop community service programs for schoolchildren to participate in the holiday, and $1 million for the state to develop and distribute a Chavez-related curriculum.

"I can think of no better way to honor the selfless mission of Cesar Chavez than inspiring young people to emulate it," Polanco said.

"We're glad the Legislature moved forward on this," said Los Angeles school board member David Tokofsky. "What we'd ideally like to see is a ninth-grade social studies class that embodies the work of Chavez, like a local government course shaped for each district across the state."

Chavez, who died in 1993, entered the national spotlight in the 1960s as a co-founder, along with Dolores Huerta, of the National Farm Workers Association, later to become the United Farmworkers Union that today represents 26,000 people. The union achieved historic pay raises and improved work conditions for hundreds of thousands of farm laborers in the decades that followed.

Chavez was able to mobilize thousands of workers in marches against difficult work conditions and the use of toxic pesticides in agriculture. The most famous UFW action was the powerful grape boycotts of the 1970s that affected dozens of vineyards and rallied support from non-Latinos.

Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW president and husband of one of Chavez's daughters, said the holiday "gives a chance for our young people to learn more about a mentor figure like Cesar, who made great strides for working people in this country."

One great victory for the union came in 1976 with passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which laid out specific laws protecting farm labor elections and boycott rights.

The law came at a time when California voters up and down the state first began to elect Latinos, many of whom got their political start in the farm labor movement known as "La Causa," as local and statewide government representatives call it.

There are already city holidays honoring Chavez in San Fernando and Sacramento, and remembrance days in Texas and Arizona.

Local school districts have the option of declaring the day a holiday, but it is not required. A state analysis found that a paid state holiday would cost the state some $46.5 million per year.

Evelina Alarcon, who heads the Cesar E. Chavez Holiday Campaign in East Los Angeles, has pushed for the holiday for the past two years, helping to collect more than 160,000 signatures and local government resolutions around the state supporting the holiday.

"We would like to eventually see this as a national holiday," she said. "The phrase 'Si se puede' that people relate to Chavez has become a common phrase for human dignity for hundreds of thousands."