California legislators will hold a key hearing Wednesday before the Assembly appropriations committee on a bill sponsored by United Farm Workers that would make it easier for the union to recruit employees. The measure comes as the U.S. Supreme Court considers the legality of California’s landmark farmworker law allowing union access to agricultural property.
Agricultural and business groups are heavily opposed to Assembly Bill 616. Proponents argue the bill simply adds a new type of election for farmworker organizations by creating a vote-by-mail option.
“What we're trying to do is ensure that all the farmworkers have a ready ability to be able to cast that ballot,” said AB 616 author Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Democrat who represents parts of the Central Coast, at an April 22 hearing of the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee, which approved the bill on a 5-2 vote.
“We've learned over the last number of years the effectiveness of mail-in ballots and how that system works, and how it is protective of the right to vote and ensures a fair and equitable outcome,” Stone said.
Farm groups like the Western Growers Association (WGA) countered that the bill would erode guarantees of free choice and secrecy adopted in the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) of 1975. WGA Vice President of State Government Affairs Matthew Allen argued the existing secret ballot elections are already held at convenient times and places for employees and under the direct supervision of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). Opponents worried AB 616 would replace the secret ballot election with representation cards that require the signatures of just 50% of the employees — a proposal known as card check.
“Distribution and collection of the signed authorization cards is not subject to any meaningful supervision or scrutiny from any agency,” said Allen.
He also took issue with a bonding requirement in the bill, arguing it represents “a direct threat to an employer's due process rights” because it does not allow the employer to appeal unless a bond is posted in an amount to be determined by the ALRB.
“The ALRB is not a neutral party in this context and is an inherently prejudicial interest in the outcome of the appeal,” said Allen.
The California Chamber of Commerce added AB 616 to its annual list of “job killers.” CalChamber Policy Advocate Ashley Hoffman argued the ALRB and its national counterpart already have special rules to eliminate last-minute electioneering.
“We're afraid this bill would essentially eviscerate those protections,” said Hoffman.
According to CalChamber, the bill includes “an unnecessary presumption of retaliation that is effectively unlimited in scope, because it would apply for the duration of an election campaign, which could last for a year or more.”
Republican Asm. Kelly Seyarto of Riverside County asked what was wrong with the current process.
“They have the ability to get a ballot and fill it out without somebody standing in front of them, watching what's going on or giving them a prefilled ballot,” said Seyarto. “If the union's good enough, they don't have to worry about it. Everybody's going to sign up.”
He said the measure would instead create a coercive environment for workers.
The committee approved AB 616 along party lines. Asm. Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, a Democrat and former labor leader, called the inequities striking between the current standards for farmworker unions to gain recognition and those for teachers unions, which “simply” turn in a petition listing the employees who would like to join.
“We believe that for public employees — especially teachers and hospital employees — that is sufficient,” said Gonzalez. “Yet somehow this actually more stringent review that would still be happening under the ALRB somehow is not.”
She added that such barriers have prevented workers from feeling safe when forming a union in the agricultural industry. Following a plunge in membership beginning at the turn of the century, United Farm Workers has about 6,000 active members as of December 2019, according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Stone was astonished by opposition “creating this specter” that workers would be handed prefilled ballots.
“We have some additional protections that if someone is assisting the individual casting the ballot, they indicate that on the ballot,” said Stone. “The assumption that that guarantees there’s a thug standing over an individual saying, ‘This is how you're signing it, I'm filling your ballot out,’ is just a little bit beyond the pale.”
Such representation cards were last proposed in a 2011 bill and vetoed by then-Gov. Jerry Brown — in direct contrast to his first term as governor, when he signed the ALRA into law. In his veto message, Brown called the proposal a drastic change from the ALRA and said he was not convinced “that the far-reaching proposals” were justified.
Jackson Gualco, president of the agricultural lobbying firm The Gualco Group, said UFW has put the initiative back on the agenda to take advantage of Brown's departure and the potential for Gov. Gavin Newsom, under a recall threat, looking to bolster his support among labor groups. Gualco explained that UFW had supported former mayor of Los Angeles Antonio Villaraigosa in the gubernatorial primary, but Newsom quickly moved to mend fences with UFW.
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“It's a very active political organization that Democrats — in particular liberal Democrats — want to get their endorsement,” said Gualco, during a policy event last month for the California Association of Winegrape Growers (CAWG). “And that's pretty much all that’s left [of UFW].”
The U.S. Supreme Court is expected to decide soon on whether to uphold a core element of the ALRA. Attorneys challenging the law argued that allowing access to agricultural property to organize employees should require payment under the Fifth Amendment, which forbids the taking of private property without just compensation. A ruling in the case is expected to come in July, two months before the Legislature wraps up the session.
Michael Miiller, director of government relations for CAWG, said a decision in favor of the agricultural employers would bolster the arguments of AB 616 proponents. Gualco agreed that would likely enhance the desire of UFW to get the card check system in place.
“Because they don't have to worry about trying to run an election, which historically UFW has done very poorly with,” said Gualco. “You can use a variety of techniques, some of them not very savory, in order to get people to sign onto the card.”
AB 616 will be heard on Wednesday in Assembly Appropriations, a committee where lawmakers are known to kill bills without debate. Yet Gualco said this bill is likely to make it all the way to the governor.
“With the supermajority in both houses of the Legislature, we're fully expecting it to move through,” he said, noting there are 41 co-authors on the bill — a third of the Legislature. “It's a very real threat.”
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