Employers & Employment, Legislation, Politics, Regulations & Compliance, Unions & Organized Labor

Head to Head: Should California Make It Easier for Farmworkers to Organize Unions?

From SacBee.com, The Sacramento Bee, “Head to Head: Should California Make It Easier for Farmworkers to Organize Unions?” by Pia Lopez and Eric Hogue, 30 Mar 2011.

THE ISSUE: The Legislature is considering Senate Bill 104, which would create an “alternative procedure” known as “card check” for farmworkers to decide whether or not to unionize – having a majority of employees fill out cards authorizing a union to represent them as an alternative to the current secret-ballot election.

Eric Hogue: No

While efforts to reduce expensive public union controls evolve nationwide, Democrats are attempting to force more union regulatory costs on one of California’s few surviving industries: agriculture. The results will not only drive up labor costs, but will consequentially force producers to be priced out of interstate and international markets. At a time when every table-top conversation involves economic survival, can such an effort be good for California’s future?

Typically, when unions desire to organize a workplace they are first contacted by disgruntled workers. The union responds by sending a representative to meet with the employees. After their grievances are understood, the union develops a plan to organize the labor force. Federal rules govern this activity; if enough workers petition for unionization, management schedules a “secret ballot” vote. If a majority decides to organize, it’s at this point the collective bargaining process begins.

But under “card check,” there is no “secret ballot” determination. Instead, the union representative meets each employee and encourages them to sign cards authorizing union representative. When the union has a majority of workers’ authorizations, the workplace becomes a union shop.

To ease the conversion of California’s government workforce in the late 1970s, public unions were given “card check powers” for both state and local-level government workplaces. An exception to this rule is land laborers; farmworkers were not covered because of the seasonal nature of their work.

State law governs the collective bargaining process for farmworkers. Seizing on this loophole, our state Legislature’s Democratic majority hopes to pass a card check law, increasing the number of union workers and the dues dollars that flow from the unions’ treasuries to Democratic candidates.

When Senate Bill 104 passes, we can expect a tsunami of newly unionized farmworkers, as union reps go into the fields to “encourage” workers to sign membership cards. Thus, California’s produce, eggs, dairy, poultry, beef, wine, etc., will increasingly be priced out of the interstate and international markets.

Agriculture currently features farmers reeling from water cutbacks, existing competition and numerous air-quality/diesel and carbon regulations. Ag is one of the few viable industries remaining in California, and the last thing California needs is a massive increase to labor costs.

While Rome burns, Democrats prepare to add more fuel to the fiscal fire. With the state budget already in a chronic, multibillion-dollar deficit coma, it’s insanely irresponsible for the Legislature to even consider – much less pass – a new law which will serve only to reduce tax revenue to the state’s general budget, not to mention raising food prices for every consumer in the state.

Pia Lopez: Yes

Hand harvesting fruits and vegetables is physically exhausting, backbreaking work often done in blazing heat and dust. Historically, the most recent immigrants – from Chinese to Japanese to Filipino to Mexican – do the work. Most are not U.S. citizens and may never be allowed to become citizens – like in the days of the Chinese Exclusion Acts of 1882 to 1942.

Needless to say, these folks don’t have much in the way of bargaining power with regard to wages and working conditions.

The National Labor Relations Act of 1935, which gave most workers the right to join unions and bargain collectively, excluded farmworkers. Forty years later, then-Gov. Jerry Brown signed the pioneering California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, but 36 years later it has accomplished little. Philip Martin of the University of California, Davis, has noted that today there are “fewer workers under union contract in California agriculture than before the CALRA was enacted, and farm wages and working conditions have slipped further behind the U.S. norms than they were in the 1960s and 1970s.” Ultimately this is a matter of federal immigration policies, but prospects for action are dim.

So what to do? The reality is that despite CALRA, elections are hardly democratic – something that Eric misses. Common tactics include: mandatory captive audience meetings in the workplace; threats to close facilities if the union wins; discrimination against – or firing of – union supporters, or special favors for anti-union workers. Penalties are pitifully small.

Senate Bill 104 attempts to create a more fair election process.

Proponents and opponents have focused on the so-called “card check” provision, which would allow workers to sign cards instead of holding a secret-ballot election.

But the more important provisions, in my view, are the fines of $20,000 for “willful or repeated actions by the employer to interfere, restrain or coerce” workers, and a $10,000 a day fine for failure to turn over employee lists to the California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board during an organizing campaign.

To me, secret ballots are not the problem; the problem is that employers can violate the secret ballot election process without real consequences. To disarm opponents, Gov. Jerry Brown should urge lawmakers to drop the card check provision and focus on the penalties for unfair, illegal electioneering. That would eliminate opponents’ arguments that the bill is undoing the secret ballot process – and focus on the provisions that make misconduct costly.

In the end, the issue is this: Farmworkers should have the right to be free from threats and coercion when choosing whether or not to unionize.

Eric Hogue is a talk show host on KTKZ in Sacramento.

Pia Lopez is an editorial writer at The Bee.
Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2011/03/30/3513076/should-california-make-it-easier.html#ixzz1I5VoJJiB

Read more: http://www.sacbee.com/2011/03/30/3513076/should-california-make-it-easier.html#ixzz1I5VlpCBU

Read at: SacBee.com, The Sacramento Bee, “Head to Head: Should California Make It Easier for Farmworkers to Organize Unions?” by Pia Lopez and Eric Hogue, 30 Mar 2011.

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