From FresnoBee.com, Robert Rodriguez, 17 Jun 2011.
California farmers and the United Farm Workers union are stepping up the pressure on Gov. Jerry Brown to decide the fate of a bill that would make it easier for thousands of farmworkers to become union members.
The bill, called the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, would allow workers to vote from home on whether to unionize. Union leaders say workers feel intimidated when they vote at their workplace and the bill would help prevent that.
The union has staged protests, including a 12-day fast, to get the governor’s attention.
Farmers have strongly opposed the bill, saying it opens the doors to bullying by the union, because union organizers would be able to pressure workers one-on-one without other observers present.
The Assembly has approved Senate Bill 104 and it is now on Brown’s desk. His Republican predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed four previous UFW attempts.
Union officials are banking on Brown’s history. During his previous term as governor, Brown, with the support of UFW co-founder Cesar Chavez, signed the landmark Agriculture Labor Relations Act in 1975. The law gave farmworkers the right to unionize, through secret-ballot elections.
Brown has 12 calendar days to decide what to do.
A victory could give the union a boost in organizing. The UFW only represents about 1% of the state’s estimated 450,000 farmworkers and has lost several contracts over the years as workers voted to decertify. Labor experts estimate there were 5,325 union members in 2008, down from 5,638 in 2004.
Brown’s staff said the governor does not take a position before signing a bill, and it’s unclear which way he is leaning. Still, both sides have been campaigning heavily to win him over.
Two days ago, about 1,000 people, including 800 farmworkers, descended on the state capital, where they symbolically delivered the bill to the governor’s staff. At the same time, workers, union leaders and supporters began a 12-day fast on the northern steps of the Capitol. They’re not all fasting at once but taking turns.
The bill’s author, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, State Controller John Chiang and Rep. Howard Berman are expected to join in the fast.
Meanwhile, farmers and industry leaders are using their own outreach tools – including phone calls, letters and emails to the governor, urging him to reject the bill.
They question why the union is trying to replace a system that Chavez helped create.
Manuel Cunha, president of the Fresno-based Nisei Farmers League, said Chavez wanted the workers to be able to vote in a secret-ballot election. The union is trying to take that away, Cunha said.
But union spokeswoman Maria Machuca said the bill does not replace anything; it just provides an option for workers.
Under current law, a union must persuade a majority of employees to sign authorization cards saying they want the union to represent them. If they meet that threshold, the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, or ALRB, schedules a secret-ballot election held at the job site.
But union officials say that workers often fear that if they vote for the union, they will be fired. They also complain of intimidation by employers during a union election.
The union’s bill takes the election process away from the worksite. It would allow workers to unionize if they get a majority of employees to submit signed petition cards to the state’s ALRB.
No election would be needed. And workers would be able to sign the petition cards at home.
The union likens the new proposal to voting by absentee ballot.
But California agriculture leaders say that a union representative may be present when a worker receives his petition card – and that’s a problem.
“Nobody comes up to me when I am voting by absentee and tells me they would like me to sign the ballot,” said Tom Nassif, president and CEO of Western Growers. “But that is how this new system will work, and it is not fair to the workers.”
If the bill passes, growers and labor experts say, it could create several changes in farming, including a shift to less labor-intensive crops or mechanical harvesting. Relocation is also a possibility.
Nassif said growers have relocated to Mexico, and the new law could accelerate that.
“Farmers will make adjustments,” said Howard Rosenberg, an agriculture labor management specialist at the University of California at Berkeley. “They may change a crop, go out of business or even move to another location.”
Union spokeswoman Machuca isn’t swayed by that argument.
“What is agriculture so afraid of?” Machuca said. “Let workers vote their conscience. And it will be up to them to decide if they want good working conditions, better wages and a job where they are not intimidated.”