Gov. Gavin Newsom has signed legislation that will allow unions to collect signed ballot or authorization cards to organize farm employees in lieu of holding secret ballot elections for union certification.
California agricultural groups say Newsom’s signing of Assembly Bill 2183 last week as well as a supplemental accord with the United Farm Workers Union and the California Labor Federation represents a dramatic departure from rules protecting farm employees from coercion in union votes.
“We’re disappointed,” said California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson. “‘Card check’ is simply devoid of that privacy and the right to freely decide how you want to be represented based on what’s best for you and your family.”
AB 2183, a purported vote-by-mail union organizing measure by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, passed in the Legislature despite a veto threat from Newsom. The governor’s spokeswoman initially said he couldn’t support an “uncontested mail-election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the election.”
But, ultimately, Newsom signed the bill. He did so after reaching the supplemental agreement, which would eliminate language on voting by mail and instead allow a card-check system that requires no election. The union would be installed if organizers gather signatures of a majority of employees at an agricultural business.
AB 2183 gave employers the right to enter into a “labor peace compact,” in which employers would allow union organizers to enter worksites. But California Farm Bureau Senior Counsel Carl Borden said the side agreement would replace the labor peace language with an “unadulterated card-check” union organizing system.
“It’s tragic that the Legislature and governor stripped agricultural employees of their right to vote on unionization in the privacy of a secure voting booth during an election supervised by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, free from undue influence,” Borden said.
A year ago, Newsom vetoed a similar bill, AB 616, saying it would have created a “ballot-card” election “with inconsistencies and procedural issues” related to the collection of votes.
“The case has been reiterated over and over again by multiple governors—Gov. (Arnold) Schwarzenegger, Gov. (Jerry) Brown and even last year with the veto,” Johansson said. “So we’re a little confused as to what changed.”
Newsom faced heightened pressure from Democratic leaders. Most notably, President Joe Biden issued a Labor Day statement, urging Newsom to sign the bill, which he did on Sept. 28.
“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” Newsom said in a statement that gave tribute to historic farm labor organizers, including Cesar Chavez.
That drew a sharp reaction from Dave Puglia, president and CEO of Western Growers. Puglia argued that Chavez fought for passage of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave farmworkers the right to organize with “the guarantee of free and fair elections shielded from intimidation and coercion by any interested party.”
In his statement, Puglia said the AB 2183 signing “will unleash a relentless campaign of union pressure and harassment.”
Ian May, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, took issue with a “legislative fix” for the bill “being drafted behind closed doors with no opportunity for input by all stakeholders.”
“If this is any example of how this bill will be implemented, agricultural employers throughout California will have no say in their future,” May said in a statement.
Bryan Little, chief operating officer of the Farm Employers Labor Service and Farm Bureau’s director of labor affairs, said many agricultural employers offer “a solid package of benefits,” including 401 (k) plans and other programs for workers.
The Farm Bureau is also partnering with the National Immigration Forum in a program that covers costs of citizenship application services and counseling for eligible employees of more than 30,000 Farm Bureau members.
Only a small fraction of California’s estimated 500,000 agricultural workers are unionized. Little said employees with positive working relationships with agricultural businesses are unlikely to want to give up the 3% of their salaries in union dues for benefits they already have.
“The fact is employers, including ag employers, may get a union if they ignore simple things that might cause their employees to seek help from outsiders,” Little said. “If you, as their employer, show them you already give them benefits, respect, flexibility, good work-life balance and solid communications, union agents won’t get the time of day from your employees.”
Still, Norm Groot, executive director of the Monterey County Farm Bureau, said he is worried about rules in AB 2183 that restrict employers’ ability to present arguments against unionization. He said the measure “infringes on the rights of farm employers to discuss the changes that unionization makes to their employment and paychecks.”
AB 2183 goes into effect Jan. 1, though its full impacts may not be felt until the Legislature approves the supplementary agreement to amend the bill. If approved next year, the agreement would go into effect Jan. 1, 2024, or earlier if approved in a super-majority urgency vote.
Once approved, unions will be able to serve employers with organizing petitions signed by a majority of workers on the same day the petitions are filed with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. Employers then have 48 hours to file a response and provide the board full names, street addresses, telephone numbers and job classification details on all employees.
Johansson said the Farm Bureau and agricultural groups will continue to fight for revisions to the bill.
“There are steps we can take,” Johansson said. “Just because the bill is signed doesn’t mean the discussion is over.”
(Peter Hecht is chief editor of publications for the California Farm Bureau. He may be contacted at [email protected].)