Bill would make it easier for California farmworkers to unionize

Reporting from Sacramento -- State lawmakers acted Thursday to make it easier for California farmworkers to unionize.

The legislation would give farmworkers the option of unionizing without the usual petition, followed by a secret-ballot election. Instead they could submit cards signed by a majority of workers to state labor officials.

The measure was approved on a 24-14 party-line vote by the state Senate and sent to the Assembly on Cesar Chavez Day, the state holiday recognizing the co-founder of the United Farm Workers. Supporters are betting it will get a better reception from Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown than from his Republican predecessor, who vetoed similar bills.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento) introduced the bill, saying it was needed to reduce employer intimidation of farmworkers, who must now go to public polling places to ratify unions.


“There are countless cases and countless stories of farmworkers who are told that if they vote to join a union, they will be out of a job the next day,” Steinberg told his colleagues. “They are told they will be reported to immigration.”

The bill would allow employees to fill out cards in the privacy of their homes and hand them to union organizers, who would deliver the cards to state labor officials. If a majority of workers sought unionization, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board would certify their bargaining unit. Under this option, no election would be required.

Republicans argued the change could lead to coercion by union organizers.

“Getting those cards … really tilts the playing field toward the union,” said state Sen. Mark Wyland (R-Escondido).

The bill is also opposed by business groups including the Western Growers Assn., the California Assn. of Wine Grape Growers, the California Chamber of Commerce and the California Grocers Assn.

Steinberg argued that existing state laws are not doing enough to protect workers. He cited the deaths of 15 workers from heat-related illnesses in the last six years, despite a law that has required employers to provide adequate water, shade and breaks. Their number included pregnant teenager Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who died in 2008.

The measure is supported by the United Farm Workers of America, which had failed during the last four years to get similar bills past Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.

Brown has not taken a stance on this bill. But he was endorsed by the UFW, and he signed farmworker unionizing laws during his first stint in office in the 1970s.