From NYTimes.com, Editorial, 5 Jul 2011.
In California, once a national model of farmworker organizing and progressive labor laws, things have fallen far since the heyday of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. Of the more than 400,000 workers on 40,000 California farms, the union represents only a tiny share. It listed just 5,219 members in a report to the federal Department of Labor last year. Conditions in the fields and camps are as bad as ever, but the union is adrift and torn by a squalid battle over the movement’s future.
In that bleak context, farmworkers need a stronger voice and new opportunities to defend their rights. It was disappointing last week to see the death of a bill that would have made it easier for farmworkers to unionize. It allowed organizers simply to collect signed petition cards from workers rather than hold secret-ballot elections. Unions prefer this method, also known as card-check, because they say elections are vulnerable to coercion by employers, who often punish workers involved in organizing.
The bill was a Sacramento perennial, repeatedly passed by the Legislature and vetoed by then-Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican. This time it was killed Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat, who said he was unconvinced that the “drastic change” to labor laws was worth it. The bill’s opponents warned that the union would intimidate workers into signing union cards.
Mr. Brown has a personal perspective on the issue as Chavez’s ally in the 1970s. During his previous stint as governor, he signed the bill giving farmworkers the secret ballot, a prelude to a string of organizing triumphs.
There is no denying the need for justice on the farms where some of America’s most exploited workers toil. After Mr. Brown’s rebuff, the union needs to renew and reform itself using the tools at hand. If it wants to be more than a logo and known for more than memories of the grape boycott, then it needs to organize and put new energy into a difficult job it has sorely neglected.