California farmworker bill will reduce intimidation during union elections, says union official

In a remarkable reversal, California Gov. Gavin Newsom signed legislation on Wednesday that will make it easier for farmworkers to vote in union elections, after indicating that he would veto the bill only weeks before.

The governor changed course after facing mounting pressure from union leaders, workers, and political allies, including President Biden and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi. The bill, AB 2183, is a major victory for the United Farm Workers (UFW), which both sponsored it and orchestrated a weeks-long march across California last month in support of the legislation.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” Gov. Newsom said in a press release on Wednesday afternoon. “California is proud to stand with the next generation of leaders carrying on this movement.”

Currently, farmworkers are required to vote in person in union elections, which are often held on growers’ properties. AB 2183 gives farmworkers more flexibility. If their employer agrees not to oppose a unionization effort, the workers will be able to vote using mail-in ballots. But if an employer opposes the unionization effort, the bill additionally allows workers to vote by “card check,” a process by which they sign “authorization cards” asking a union to represent them rather than voting by ballot.

Business groups vehemently opposed the legislation, but to UFW organizers like Armando Elenes, AB 2183 is a step toward remedying a major problem: intimidation, retaliation, and voter suppression during union elections. FERN talked to Elenes earlier this week, before Newsom signed the legislation. This conversation has been edited for length and clarity.

Under California’s current system, union elections for farmworkers are held in person, and they’re often held on the employer in question’s property. Have you seen that suppress voter turnout?

You can see the pressure [when workers cast their ballots] — workers looking around, wondering who’s gonna see them. There’s always a percentage that just doesn’t participate because they’re so petrified. It’s an extremely frightening experience for some.

I tell people, when you go vote in a regular political election, you take your kid, you get your little sticker. So that’s why we’re like, look, this should be something that’s easier for a worker to do. And the easiest thing is for them to be able to vote from the comfort of their own home.

The UFW and its supporters also allege that workers regularly face intimidation or retaliation, both before and after union elections. Are there specific examples of this that come to mind?

Most of the time it’s verbal threats — it’s a lot harder to prove when it’s a verbal threat. We’ve also seen workers suspended supposedly for something incidental, and they just happen to be the leader [of the unionization effort]. You have this nagging suspicion, but do you have the actual proof? That’s pretty darn hard to get. And even if you do get it, a lot of growers just take that risk. Let’s say I’m a grower. I’ll fire a worker, and maybe down the road I’ll [get caught for wrongfully terminating them and] have to pay that worker’s lost wages. But by that point, I’ve already stopped that worker from organizing more workers. That’s a cost I’m willing to pay.

Growers have used immigration [to intimidate employees]. In one union election, the grower told workers, “The union is gonna call immigration on you if they went forward with the vote.” I was like, what? And there have been situations where farms have shut themselves down. With Premiere Raspberries, we won and were waiting for the contract to be ordered, but the company shut the farm down before we could ever implement the contract.

So the whole point of this legislation is to reduce the threats, reduce the intimidation and retaliation that occurs. Can we eliminate it? I’m not 100 percent sure about that. But can we reduce it? Can we make it easier for farmworkers to choose whether or not they want to be represented? I don’t see why we shouldn’t be able to.

The agricultural sector has fiercely opposed AB 2183, and lobbying groups like the California Farm Bureau claim that the legislation would make it easier for the UFW to pressure workers into supporting the union. They’ve voiced concern about the bill’s “card check” provision. Just to play devil’s advocate here: If the UFW or other labor organizations are in charge of collecting workers’ authorization cards and submitting a petition to unionize to the state, couldn’t they conceivably intimidate workers into voting yes on their authorization cards? Or tamper with that petition?

But the cards are reviewed once they’re submitted — that’s done by either a neutral third party or state agency. And the state of California already has this type of unionization process in place for public employees, right? All I would say is, look at the record. The overwhelming percentage of labor violations are coming from the employer side.