The California Senate passed a measure last week that would alter election rules for farmworker unions to allow for a vote-by-mail option. The bill, sponsored by United Farm Workers, returns to the Assembly for a final confirmation vote on amendments before advancing to Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk. Farm groups are now turning their attention to the governor, calling for Newsom to veto the measure and maintain fair elections.

Senator Connie Leyva of Chino, who previously served as president of the California Labor Federation, championed the measure, persuading 24 colleagues to vote in favor. While Republicans opposed the measure, two Democrats also stood against the proposal and five others abstained from voting.

“It's easy to characterize the debate today as pro-union or antiunion,” said Sen. Steve Glazer of Orinda. “I don't think it's anything of the kind.”

Glazer argued the issue was not about protecting agricultural workers and that Assembly Bill 616 instead threatened “the sanctity of the ballot box” and the process for ensuring fair elections, while undermining California’s democratic values. He repeated arguments made by William Gould, a former chair of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) who advocated against the measure in an opinion piece last week for the Visalia Times Delta. Gould argued AB 616 would take regulatory responsibility away from the ALRB and place it in the hands of private partisans, meaning unions would control the process.

“This bill is simple, my friends,” countered Leyva. “This bill is about allowing a different option for farmworkers to vote.”

She called Gould’s article misleading and inaccurate. 

Sen. Melissa Hurtado of Sanger, also a former labor organizer and the daughter of farm laborers, said the farmworkers she has spoken with had different concerns.

“The last thing on their mind is whether or not to join a union,” said Hurtado. “The one main concern on their mind is water, because if they don't have any water, they don't have a job.”

Hurtado, who unseated a Republican incumbent in 2018 and faces an election in 2022, has been seeking more moderate ground on issues affecting the agriculture industry. Top among those is her bill for investing nearly $800 million for repairing crippled parts of three conveyance canals in the San Joaquin Valley.

Hurtado appreciated the intention behind AB 616, but argued that immediate action is needed because by the time the legislation would be able to help “there's going to be thousands of farmworkers without jobs.”

“Do not confuse this issue,” shot back Leyva. “We do understand that farmworkers need water. And just because they may not vote for a union today, they might need that right and have it in place tomorrow or in the future.”

Leyva assured her colleagues the ballots would be kept secret, not take away anyone’s rights and not allow for union abuse or coercion, as Republican senators alleged.

Interested in more coverage and insights? Receive a free month of Agri-Pulse West

“The bill is solid,” said Sen. Dave Cortese of San Jose in backing the measure. “I'm a little surprised to some degree—other than the obvious concerns that the folks would have who are against organizing in the first place.”

The comment was directed at Republican Sen. Jim Nielsen of Gerber, who said he had been dealing with the issue since he first took office in the 1970s.

The California Farm Bureau was disappointed with the passage.

“The Senate eliminated the farm employees’ right to choose for themselves whether they want to have a portion of their paycheck deducted and sent to a union,” said President Jamie Johansson in a statement. “AB 616, by the Agriculture Labor Relations Board’s own analysis, will result in fewer elections because AB 616 does not require them to occur.”

Johansson added that farmworkers are already suffering job losses from the drought and will face fewer work hours when the state’s agricultural overtime law goes into full effect in January.

Ian LeMay, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, worried the bill would allow unions to select the timing and manner of an election and who receives the card check form of the ballot. According to LeMay, unions could deliver a representation card to a select group of employees to sign in their presence.

“We now call on Governor Newsom to have the same foresight as his predecessor, Governor Brown, did when he vetoed the previous card check attempt,” he said.

For more news, go to