Column: How Newsom disappointed farmworkers after they defended him in the recall election
Newsom vetoed a bill that would have let farmworkers vote by mail in union elections. They helped the governor survive the recall — and feel betrayed.
On Saturday, Guillermo Garcia addressed dozens of farmworkers outside the French Laundry, the high-end restaurant in Yountville, Calif., where Gov. Gavin Newsom was caught dining maskless at a party during the pandemic.
“I don’t know about you, but I’m angry!” cried the 49-year-old farmworker from El Salvador, who has spent two decades harvesting kale, parsley, cilantro and other produce for American tables.
For the record:4:08 p.m. Sept. 30, 2021
An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that Gov. Newsom’s office offered no alternatives to Assemblyman Mark Stone. It offered to codify an absentee ballot election process, which the union rejected.
“We’re all angry!” someone agreed. “That’s how I feel,” another added.
Many of the farmworkers — who often toil for minimum wage in 100-degree heat and risked their lives to feed the nation through a public health crisis — had defended Newsom from charges of elitism and hypocrisy during the recall election, knocking on doors and making calls urging people to vote no. Now, they feel betrayed.
Three days before, Newsom had vetoed a bill that would have allowed farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections, with ballot cards that could be mailed in or dropped off with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board office.
In his veto, Newsom cited “inconsistencies and procedural issues” in Assembly Bill 616 and directed a state labor agency to work on other options. Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, told me Newsom’s team didn’t bring up any issues in talks about the bill.
Erin Mellon, a spokeswoman for Newsom, said the governor’s office “offered to codify an absentee ballot election process,” in which ballots are mailed to workers’ homes and they can mail them back or vote in person at a polling place. She said the offer was declined.
The union disputes the claim that Newsom’s office offered any alternatives. Moreover, the union noted that farmworkers’ addresses are often unreliable, so mailing them absentee ballots wouldn’t work. The ballot cards, which organizers could pick up at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, were meant to address that problem. The bill’s author, Assemblyman Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), says Newsom’s office didn’t propose any specific amendments to the bill.
Romero says Newsom’s veto shows a double standard in which mail-in voting was permissible when it happened to benefit him, as in the recall vote. She said protesters picked the French Laundry “because we wanted to connect it to the double standards that he has.” Newsom dining there in November, while asking Californians to stay home, triggered a right-wing media frenzy that Latino voters had to mobilize to counter.
The farmworkers marched more than five miles in the scorching sun to PlumpJack Winery, which Newsom co-founded. They carried flags and a sign stating: “Newsom doesn’t care about farm workers!”
Newsom’s previous policies suggest he does care, but the veto plays into a harmful caricature that the Trump administration popularized by borrowing from white supremacist literature: that Democrats are “globalist elites” who are indifferent to working-class concerns and support immigration as a means of importing cheap labor.
“His veto gave a big victory to some of the same growers that have long fought against expanding the rights of farmworkers,” said Ana Padilla, executive director of the UC Merced Community and Labor Center, noting that powerful growers praised Newsom’s action.
The bill’s alleged flaws, as described to me by Newsom’s staff, were not insurmountable. They included questions about how organizers would identify all of the employees who should vote in a particular election. Newsom had a moral duty, given how essential these workers are, to collaborate with the United Farm Workers to ensure the bill’s success.
“If you really care about the individuals doing the most amount of work to keep us well fed, how do you not work your ass off to a point where you can sign this bill?” asked Assemblywoman Lorena Gonzalez (D-San Diego).
In the 1970s, the efforts of Cesar Chavez and other civil rights leaders resulted in 40,000 California farmworkers being covered by collective bargaining agreements. Today, the number has dwindled to only a few thousand because of growers’ anti-union activities, aided by a multimillion-dollar consulting industry.
“The tragedy is there are fewer farmworkers under union contract today than there were when Cesar Chavez was alive,” Kent Wong, director of the UCLA Labor Center, told me. Union elections usually take place on grower property, which discourages participation because farmworkers fear retaliation.
“They’re put through a gantlet by employers who make all sorts of threats,” said Ken Jacobs, chair of UC Berkeley’s Center for Labor Research and Education. Growers will sometimes fire organizers, even though that’s illegal; penalties are modest and rarely enforced.
California has health and safety protections in place for farmworkers, but it’s hard to ensure compliance if farmworkers fear reporting abuses. Most are undocumented, and a third can’t speak English.
California, which produces two-thirds of fruit and one-third of vegetables in the U.S., is one of the few states to allow farmworker unionizing. But labor conditions remain abysmal. And the need to shore up worker rights took on even greater urgency this summer after the U.S. Supreme Court struck down a California law letting union organizers enter farms during break times, reversing a regulation that had been in place for decades.
“Even if you work full time in California agriculture, you will not make it past the poverty line,” said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, UCLA Labor Center project director. The pandemic worsened existing inequalities, and climate change is fueling wildfires that hurt farmworkers too.
Lourdes Cárdenas, a 58-year-old mother and Mexican farmworker, also marched last weekend. She recalls being sprayed with pesticides while working and laughed at for complaining. She told me, “Without that law, we’re going to continue to be humiliated and harmed.”
When she and the others arrived at PlumpJack Winery, they hoped Newsom would be there and explain himself. But he didn’t show up. Shortly before sunset, the farmworkers went home.
For Democratic politicians, supporting farmworker rights should be a core value, not a principle they can wave aside when convenient. It appears Newsom did just that with his veto.
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