Following a closed-door deal with labor groups, the Newsom administration has pushed through the Legislature sweeping changes to the way farmworkers vote in union elections. In less than a week, the governor’s office drafted and then state lawmakers passed a cleanup bill that erodes a key provision at the center of a lengthy debate over a United Farm Workers (UFW) bill.
Last year Gov. Gavin Newsom signed Assembly Bill 2183, granting farmworkers an option to vote by mail and approving a controversial system for gathering votes known as card check, which enables union organizers to collect and submit ballots. The new collective bargaining agreements likely to result, along with a bump in penalties, could significantly escalate labor costs for employers.
Since the bill took effect in January, trade groups and legal experts have been stressing to employers to avoid the labor peace compact option in AB 2183 for mail-in ballots, since it would bar employers from making statements for or against unions. Not signing on to a labor peace agreement would instead subject employers to card check, in which a union would submit authorization cards demonstrating majority support to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) — and avoid an election entirely. No employers have so far opted for the labor peace option.
According to Newsom’s signing statement last September, farmworkers “have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace.”
Yet just two weeks earlier, Newsom had publicly pledged to veto the bill and eventually bowed to pressure from President Joe Biden and other national Democratic leaders.
UFW had successfully elevated the issue to the national stage after rejoining the California Labor Federation, having pulled out of the influential umbrella group for unions in 2006 amid declining membership numbers. Former Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher took the helm at the federation last summer and marched with UFW to the Capitol, demonstrating how the state’s much larger unions have coalesced behind UFW. Unions representing Teamsters, nurses, Longshoremen and several other trades held UFW banners and donned red shirts in solidarity.
AB 2183 also came in the wake of a U.S. Supreme Court decision limiting union access to properties — a pivotal ruling that handicapped California’s central law governing agricultural labor unions. While AB 2183 was nearly identical to one Newsom had vetoed in 2021 and similar to a card check bill vetoed by former Gov. Jerry Brown, the political dynamic had changed significantly.
Ahead of signing the legislation, Newsom met with UFW and the federation to iron out a compromise that would strike out the mail-in option and cap the amount of in-person card check elections over the next five years.
The cleanup bill the Legislature approved last week follows through on the agreement to eliminate the mail-in option, which the administration had viewed as the most problematic provision. Assembly Bill 113 capped the number of elections at five until the law potentially sunsets in 2028. According to the Department of Finance, the limit was based on the ALRB’s capacity to take on the additional workload, though the “large limit” is unlikely to be reached. AB 113 also renamed card check as a “majority support petition.”
Farm groups disparaged both the agreement and the bill for excluding them entirely from the process. Introducing the provision as a budget rider allowed the administration to fast-track the legislation and circumvent the policy committee process. The bill, labeled a budget item for requiring $10,000 dollars to implement, fell at the trail end of discussions in budget committee hearings and floor sessions last week. It was superseded by an urgent $150 million bailout for hospitals in the form of low-cost loans along with priority legislation on child care and forgiving student loan debt.
“This is a terrible process,” lamented Assembly Minority Leader James Gallagher, during a final floor vote on AB 113 last week. “We have to stand up for ourselves.”
Republicans have seized on Democratic contempt for Newsom’s approach to passing contentious legislation. The governor took heat from party leaders last fall after a moment of candid insight on stage at the Clinton Global Initiative.
“I had to jam my own Democratic Legislature in the last few weeks of our session,” he told the crowd during Climate Week NYC. “Had I not done that, all those special interests would have prevailed again to deny and delay.”
Gallagher charged that lawmakers were once again allowing Newsom to force a law through a bill “that’s had no debate, no discussion, hasn’t gone through committees.” He blasted Newsom for amending AB 2183 long after signing it.
“This bill advances poor public policy through an abused process,” said Republican Asm. Vince Fong of Bakersfield.
On the other side of the Capitol, GOP Sen. Roger Niello of Fair Oaks claimed the $10,000 allocation was “entirely unnecessary,” given the intent of AB 113 was to revise AB 2183.
The business and agriculture community agreed.
“Half of the stakeholders in the AB 113 debate were heard. The other half were not — that included us,” said Bryan Little, director of labor affairs at the California Farm Bureau, in describing the UFW agreement during a budget hearing last week. “You're going to pass significant changes in policy that will never go before a policy committee of either of these two bodies of the Legislature. That takes away any opportunity that we will have to be able to comment on whether it makes any kind of sense or not.”
Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs at the Western Growers Association, was frustrated that throughout last year proponents had told farm groups AB 2183 was about mail-in voting. Former Asm. Mark Stone of Monterey Bay had downplayed comments that his bill was about card check.
“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,” said Stone. “That's all this bill is doing.”
Eduardo Martinez, a legislative director at the California Labor Federation, told lawmakers last year that AB 2183 would add 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.
Similarly, Assembly Budget Chair Phil Ting presented the cleanup bill as simply streamlining the process for agricultural representatives to select a collect bargaining union representative.
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Allen, however, argued AB 2183 and AB 113 eliminate the ability for farmworkers to have a secret ballot process — a voting mechanism the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 held sacrosanct in preventing coercion.
He was also angered that the appeal bond process was left in the language. During committee hearings last year, Allen pressed lawmakers to drop the proposal for directing appeal orders to the ALRB. He argued it would violate basic due process and create an ethical conflict by setting up the board as a gateway in determining if an employer could appeal an ALRB order — before the employer was even able to make a case for appeal.
“We believe that's fundamentally unfair,” he said last week.
While appeal bonds are common in law, they are determined by a neutral third party, like the superior court, according to Allen.
The legislation also grants ALRB the authority to impose penalties of up to $25,000 for discriminatory or retaliatory labor practices.
Little believed the bills “effectively remove any meaningful oversight” from the ALRB of the process for collecting authorization cards and petitions. He reasons that UFW representatives have close access to farmworkers by helping them with immigration issues or distributing resources for pandemic, drought or flood relief, and that access grants them more opportunities for convincing workers to sign union cards or petitions that could be deployed up to a year later against a business.
Fong agreed, arguing that eliminating the protection of secret ballots exposes the process to abuse, intimidation and coercion, running counter to the Assembly’s many floor debates over election integrity. Gallagher added that many of his Democratic colleagues had lauded mail-in voting last year as the best way to vote.
“I personally believe that the choice to join a union should be your choice, the individual worker, free of coercion, free of anybody influencing your vote,” said Gallagher.
Asm. Joaquin Arambula of Fresno, on the other hand, cheered AB 113, saying together the measures will provide farmworkers a seat at the table to negotiate fair wages and working standards.
“We should be inspired by the historic march that farmworkers took from Delano to our state Capitol last year,” said Arambula.
Farm groups worry the issues of AB 2183 could be further exacerbated by another bill that is under consideration in the Senate and backed by the California Labor Federation. Senate Bill 399 would prohibit employers from talking to workers about political issues and prevent them from discussing the impacts of AB 2183 and other legislation. Two committees have advanced the measure along party lines.
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