Assemblymember Mark Stone of Monterey Bay has reintroduced a bill popular among lawmakers that would provide a vote-by-mail option for farmworker union elections. While dozens of Democrats have already signed onto Assembly Bill 2183, the measure has nearly the same provisions as one Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed last year after heavy pressure from agriculture and business groups.

When Agri-Pulse asked Stone what has changed since the veto, he asserted that he is working closely with the governor’s office on the measure but shared no details. Stone repeated that message last week during the bill’s first committee debate, adding that he is taking the veto seriously and has tapped the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) for technical assistance.

Arguments made in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee were nearly identical to those in 2021. Stone described the legislation as simply creating a mail-in ballot option for union elections.

“Farmworkers are not really given the opportunity to be able to take a ballot home, vote their own conscience their own way, outside of all of the other external influences,” he said. “That's all this bill is doing.”

One difference in the political approach to the measure from last year is the proponents are trying to do more to ensure the bill would not lead to union organizers intimidating farmworkers during elections or suppressing votes.

Mark StoneAsm. Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay

Eduardo Martinez, a legislative director at the California Labor Federation, told lawmakers this bill adds to a series of new laws that ease voter registration by providing more time and more ways to vote. Such laws have allowed state and local public workers — such as teachers, firefighters and nurses — to vote for a union just by signing a union representation card.

“Those new laws have not only stopped voter suppression, those laws have actually encouraged people to vote,” said Martinez. “Those laws have proven that we can increase voter participation while keeping elections fair and secure.”

He described California’s 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which established ALRB, as outdated and said it is time for a change to the law.

Committee Chair Ash Kalra of San Jose thanked Stone for “taking up this righteous fight once again” and homed in on a new twist to the argument — the U.S. Supreme Court’s decision that struck down a core pillar of ALRA. The opinion issued last June ruled that allowing farm labor organizers to enter private property for up to three hours a day for 120 days a year is unconstitutional and compensation is required.

“That turned everything upside down. It took away the ability to have direct access to agricultural worksites and workers,” said Kalra. “That makes this bill that much more important and critical.”

Agricultural groups last year feared the Cedar Point Nursery case — amid Newsom’s campaign against a recall election — could solidify support from the governor for SB 616. While Newsom recognized the ramifications of the Supreme Court decision, he nonetheless sided with his predecessors in vetoing the measure.

“I deeply understand the need to address the impact of this decision,” Newsom wrote in his veto message, before citing “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards” in the bill.

Instead, he directed the Labor and Workforce Development Agency to work with ALRB to develop new legislation to address the issue. Though the Legislature is less than halfway through the current session, no bills have been introduced reflecting those policy changes.

Meanwhile, the recall election has solidified Newsom’s standing with voters after handily defeating the recall candidates in November. Early polls for Newsom’s 2022 reelection campaign are tilting heavily in favor of the governor over his Republican contender, indicating Newsom may be even less inclined than last year to sign AB 2183 just to gather support from labor groups. Along with United Farm Workers (UFW), which sponsored AB 616 last year, labor unions for nurses, school employees and teamsters have lined up in support, as has the farmworker rights group California Rural Legal Assistance Inc.

The list of organizations in opposition, however, runs much longer, with farm groups and local chambers of commerce making up the bulk of the signatures.

During the committee hearing, Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs at the Western Growers Association, blasted the bill for undermining the secret ballot election process, which serves to protect the right of farmworkers to free and uncoerced elections. Allen asserted that former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger recognized the threat to secret ballot elections when they vetoed measures that similarly attempted to ease restrictions on union organizers.

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In opposing AB 616 last year, farm groups portrayed the measure as hurting farmworkers rather than framing the bill as pitting employers against unions. The California Farm Bureau held a rally at the Capitol last fall in coordination with workers from Duarte Nursery in Hughson.

“We don't need a union,” Patricia Lopez, a Duarte labor manager, told Agri-Pulse, adding that affordable housing, drought and many other issues are greater concerns for workers.

Allen pointed out that UFW founder Cesar Chavez insisted that ALRA should ensure the secret ballot elections were the exclusive means for recognizing the formation of a union.

The agricultural coalition also took issue with a provision in AB 2183 related to the process for appealing a monetary award order by ALRB. Allen argued it would violate basic due process because the provision would allow ALRB to determine if an employer can appeal.

“The ALRB is not a neutral party in this context and has a prejudicial interest in the outcome of the appeal,” he said, noting that the 2015 measure vetoed by Brown carried the same language.

Western Growers also pushed back on Stone’s comments that the bill aligns with California’s current mail-in balloting options for political elections. The group says the only similarity is that both include mailing envelopes with the ballot cards. According to the farm group, the bill would grant unions the power to choose which workers receive a ballot and when the election takes place.

“Some farmworkers included in the bargaining unit will never have a chance to express a preference for or against representation,” WGA writes in an opposition statement.

Like Allen, Ashley Hoffman, a policy advocate for the California Chamber of Commerce, fears the bill would eliminate rules designed to prevent last-minute pressuring and electioneering.

Susan Talamantes Reyes, Monique Limon, Connie LeyvaSen. Connie Leyva, D-Chino (right), stands with fellow lawmakers at a UFW rally.

“Proponents of the bill have called some of our concerns about this hyperbolic,” said Hoffman. “Yet there are reports documented in decisions by the ALRB, the [National Labor Relations Board] and civil courts about this type of coercion that can occur.”

Stone said there was no basis for that allegation. 

“It's very interesting to me that the opposition is continuing to harp on the notion of a secret ballot,” he said, explaining that a farmworker would be able to make his or her own decision at home under this bill. “How that's not secret?”

The current standard of holding elections at the grower’s site is “subject to a tremendous amount of pressure and coercion,” he said.

A committee analysis of the bill notes that private-sector union organizing “appears to be on the rise” across industries as the nation moves beyond the deadliest stages of the COVID-19 pandemic. This contrasts with UFW, which has seen a plunge in membership since the turn of the century, with about 6,000 active members currently, despite a rise in the number of agricultural workers during that period.

Stone cited a study by the Economic Policy Institute, a left-leaning think tank, that suggested about 30% of union elections nationwide contained employer coercion or threats of retaliation against workers.

UFW has been ratcheting up pressure on Newsom to sign the measure. Last year it abruptly changed course during a march for AB 616 from Delano to the Capitol after Newsom vetoed the bill. UFW redirected the march to the French Laundry in Napa County, the site of the social distancing scandal in 2020 that drove the recall petition. The union president was also frustrated that Newsom did not meet with her on Cesar Chavez Day last month, opting instead for a family vacation in Mexico. Afterward, UFW announced plans to again re-create the 1966 Delano march this summer.

“It's a tough battle,” the group wrote in a petition to its members. “As you can imagine, nearly all the associations of growers and agribusiness are lobbying against this bill.”

Stone has bowed out of running for a final term in November since he would have to run for a single term in a newly drawn district. Another champion of AB 616, Sen. Connie Leyva of Chino, a former labor leader, has also dropped out of her race, along with former Asm. Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego, who took a leadership position earlier this year with the California Labor Federation.

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