Lourdes Cárdenas began the 24-day 'March for the Governor's Signature' at Forty Acres near Delano on Aug. 3, 2022. Credit: JUAN ESPARZA LOERA / Vida en el Valle

What's at stake?

The bill's supporters say the current version of the bill works best to protect farmworkers during union elections; the governor's office doesn't support the current version of the bill.

Gov. Gavin Newsom says that, in its current form, he does not support a United Farm Workers-backed bill that supporters say would give farmworkers more opportunities to vote in union elections — however, the office is still in negotiations.

His office released Newsom’s statement on the bill hours before UFW marchers arrived at the state Capitol for the conclusion of a 24-day march from Delano to Sacramento that was meant to pressure the governor to sign the legislation. Friday marks the final day of the march, and the UFW estimates 5,000 people will gather in front of the Capitol to show support for the legislation.

“Gov. Newsom is eager to sign legislation that expands opportunity for agricultural workers to come together and be represented, and he supports changes to state law to make it easier for these workers to organize,” Erin Mellon, communications director for the governor’s office, said in an email statement to The Bee on Thursday evening.

“However, we cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election and is predicated on an assumption that government cannot effectively enforce laws,” she said.

The governor vetoed a similar bill last year, citing “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.” Both versions of the bill have faced staunch opposition from the agricultural industry and grower associations and widespread support among labor groups and the state legislature.

Last year, Newsom pledged to find another way to expand voting in UFW elections. UFW responded by holding rallies at a winery Newsom owns in Napa and at the French Laundry, the pricey restaurant where he attended a party for a lobbyist’s birthday at a time during the coronavirus pandemic when he was asking Californians to avoid large groups.

Democratic Assemblymembers Mark Stone from Santa Cruz, Ash Kalra from the San Jose area and Eloise Gómez Reyes of San Bernardino co-authored this year’s bill, which 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.

Union officials said they hoped the legislation would make it easier for farmworkers to vote in union elections without fear of intimidation from employers. 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.

Newsom’s office said Thursday that their “goal is to establish a system for fair elections — requiring employers to abide by rules that guarantee union access and provide key enforceable protections to ensure a fair election. If employers fail to abide by those rules, they would be subject to organizing under a card-check process.”

They also invited the UFW to further negotiate the legislation: “We welcome an agreement with UFW on the ground-breaking legislation the administration has proposed.”

However, Mellon didn’t provide additional details on the administration’s proposal.

The timing of the governor’s message coincides with the deadline for any final amendments to the bill made on the floor, according to a legislative calendar. However, a spokesperson for the governor said they’re still in negotiations and have until the end of the month to finalize the legislation.

Teresa Romero, president of the UFW, responded to the governor’s comment in a Tweet Friday morning, saying the union will keep marching until Newsom signs the bill. The Tweet was later deleted.

‘Small disagreement’ stalls farmworker bill

A spokesperson for the governor’s office said that while a lot of progress has been made in negotiations, there’s still a “small disagreement” over how a mail-in election would be administered.

“There’s a national standard for how these mail-in elections are run,” Anthony York, spokesperson for the governor’s office, said on a phone call with The Bee on Friday morning. “Thousands of workers have been using them (those standards) to unionize and we believe that should be the standard.”

But UFW leaders say they cannot support the “broken” National Labor Relations Act model for mail-in ballots because it “doesn’t work for farmworkers.” They also pointed out that farmworkers have historically been excluded from the NLRA.

“The issue that remains is they (the governor’s office) want the employer to affirmatively know exactly when people start voting,” Giev Kashkooli, political and legislative director for the UFW, said in a call with The Bee on Friday morning. “Ultimately, there’ll be a clear election day. What they want is that the employer knows from the beginning when the election date is.”

United Farm Workers president Teresa Romero embraces Teresa Maldonado, of Lamont, on Friday, Aug. 26, 2022 at Our Lady of Guadalupe church in Sacramento after receiving the news that Gov. Gavin Newsom would not sign Assembly Bill 2183, which would allow farmworkers vote at home ballot to unionize because of concerns about the integrity of the mail-in ballot process. Photo Credit: Hector Amezcua SACRAMENTO BEE

However, giving employers a “specific notice of a specific date” in advance of a union election could lead to intimidation — or worse, deportation — of workers who want to exercise their rights to vote in union elections, Kashkooli said.

“Ninety percent” of what the governor wanted is in the bill, except for this “one small exception,” Kashkooli said; he also praised Stone for his leadership in the negotiations.

In an email statement to The Bee on Friday afternoon, Stone said he’s “disappointed to hear that people have jumped to the conclusion that the bill cannot be signed.”

“I know that the Governor is not happy with a bit of the current language, but I appreciate that he remains open to solutions,” he said.

The Bee has also reached out to bill co-authors Kalra and Gómez Reyes for comment.

“A point we have made to the Governor’s office — and it is not clear they have understood or internalized — is not that the employers just make threats but that the employers actually deport farm workers who complain about working conditions,” Kashkooli said.

Newsom’s office couldn’t immediately be reached for comment Friday afternoon.

Meanwhile, Stone defended the legislation as it stands.

“The current language works best for farm workers and gives them the freedom to decide if they would like to join a union without fear of coercion,” he said. “Without the protections as written, it remains very hard for the Government to hold employers accountable for threats, intimidation, and deportation of workers when they discover an effort to organize their employees.”

Kashkooli, of the UFW, said it’s time for the governor to experiment “the California way” and sign the amended legislation – which has a five-year sunset provision on the election process.

“And if he (Newsom) wants to keep negotiating,” he said, “the way to do it would be to sign this bill and then you have five years to work out to actually see how this process is working.”

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

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