On Cesar Chavez Day, around 60 farmworkers gathered to urge Governor Newsom to sign the Ag Labor Voting Choice Act, providing more choices in how farm workers can vote in their union elections. Credit: John Walker

What's at stake:

The bill would make it easier and safer for farmworkers to cast their votes in union elections and also provide them with additional privacy and reduce the possibility of intimidation or interference from employers.

The United Farm Workers is launching a 24-day march this week to raise awareness about a bill they say will make it easier for California farmworkers to vote in union elections and ultimately join collective bargaining contracts.

The 335-mile “March for the Governor’s Signature” is scheduled to start Wednesday morning with a 500-person rally at the farmworker union’s original headquarters in Delano, known as The Forty Acres. UFW president Teresa Romero, along with 30 to 50 core marchers and other participants, will then make their way across the Central Valley towards the State Capitol, covering an expected 12 and 20 miles a day.

The march is an effort to raise awareness of the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act and pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB 2183, which would amend the Agricultural Labor Relations Act to expand voting options for farmworkers.

Democratic Assemblymembers Mark Stone from Santa Cruz, Ash Kalra from the San Jose area, and Eloise Gómez Reyes of San Bernardino co-authored the bill. If passed, the legislation would allow farmworkers to choose if they want to vote at a physical location, or vote by mailing or dropping off a representation ballot card to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) office.

By expanding voting options, the bill intends to make it easier and safer for farmworkers to cast their votes in union elections, according to the UFW. It also aims to provide workers with additional privacy and reduce the possibility of intimidation or interference from employers, according to the union.

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill last year, citing “various inconsistencies” and “procedural issues” in the legislation, just as the UFW had commenced a similar march then.

In response, the union marched in protest from The French Laundry — the Napa County restaurant made infamous for hosting a gathering where Newsom shirked state COVID-19 indoor dining rules — to PlumpJack Winery, which Newsom founded in 1992. The winery has since been placed in a blind trust.

Bill addresses how farmworkers vote in union elections

Farmworkers and domestic workers are some of the only workers who aren’t protected by the National Labor Relations Act. That means they have to rely on state-level legislation and reforms to secure workplace rights that most laborers across the countryalready enjoy.

Supporters of AB 2183 say it would simply give farmworkers the same voting options that other workers already have. For example, while California farmworkers can only vote in-person at their employer’s worksite, workers that are organizing at Starbucks across the country can mail in their ballots to regional National Labor Relations Board offices.

The UFW said the legislationwould also help farmworkers feel safe voting in union elections, which the union says is an important step in leveling the playing field.

If passed, the bill would show farmworkers that the “final hurdle” of organizing — the union election vote — “is not going to be so impossibly high,” Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the UFW, told The Bee in March.

Former Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez, D-San Diego, who co-authored the bill that Newsom vetoed last year, is now the executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. Gonzalez said AB 2183 will become a priority piece of legislation for the federation.

She believes this year’s bill, with its amendments, addresses the governor’s previous concerns.

“You have employers who utilize a lot of power and coercion against these workers to keep them from organizing and this will just help make it safer, and provide more appropriate ways for them to organize,” Gonzalez said.

The legislation, however, has its critics.

William Gould IV, former head of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the National Labor Relations Board, told The Bee in January that he “doubt(s)” the legislation will lead to higher unionization rates among farmworkers.

Less than 1% of California farmworkers are organized in a union, according to an analysis of 2020 national employment survey conducted by researchers at the UC Merced Community and Labor Center.

The bill also landed on the California Chamber of Commerce’s “job-killer” list because, it said, the legislation would create a “forced” unionization process for agricultural employees.

The Chamber of Commerce said that relying on a process of submitting ballot cards “limits an employee’s ability to independently and privately vote for unionization in the workplace” and “leaves employees susceptible to coercion and manipulation by labor organizations.”

Under AB 2183, agricultural employees that commit unfair labor practices such as voter suppression could face civil penalties of up to $10,000 per violation, but not to exceed a sum of $25,000.

The bill is still making its way through Sacramento. Legislative committees have made technical amendments to the bill, and the coalition has held “a number of productive meetings” with the governor’s office, Stone said in an interview with The Bee on Tuesday.

The bill’s sponsors and authors are still in negotiations with the governor’s office, and have received input from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, Stone said, to make sure the legislation is “implementable.” And while Stone said they “don’t yet have an agreement with the governor’s office,” he’s “very hopeful” the bill will pass.

All amendments to the bill made on the floor must be finalized by Aug. 25, and the governor must sign or veto all bills by Sept. 30, according to a legislative calendar.

California farmworkers launch 24-day march in support of bill

Participants are expected to walk for nearly three weeks behind the same Lady of Guadalupe banner the organization has been marching with since the ‘60s, according to Strater of the UFW.

“These are also folks that are away from their jobs for that many weeks,” she said. “So it’s a sacrificial thing that the workers are doing. It’s obviously very important to them.”

Organizers have a “super-detailed” heat safety protocol and marchers will be accompanied by nurses and first responders on the lookout for heat illness symptoms, Strater said.

“We expect the heat to be a very challenging thing, so we’ll be starting very, very early in the day to make sure that we’re as safe as possible,” she said.

At each stop, marchers will be greeted by local UFW committees, organizers and volunteers who signed up to assist with logistics, such as feeding participants and ensuring they have housing, Strater said.

“I almost picture this corridor of solidarity that’s going to run through the Central Valley this month,” she said.

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Melissa is a labor and economic inequality reporter with The Fresno Bee and Fresnoland.

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