California Gov. Gavin Newsom said Friday he “cannot support” a bill that many farmworkers say would prevent their employers from intimidating them during union elections, disappointing the United Farm Workers union, which had launched a weeks-long march to the state capitol in support of the legislation.
The governor’s office, however, held out hope that there was still time to reach a deal on the bill before the close of the 2022 state legislative session. In a statement released Friday, the administration said it would “welcome an agreement with the UFW on the ground-breaking legislation the administration has proposed.”
Gov. Newsom issued the statement as a group of exhausted farmworkers and labor organizers reached the steps of the state capitol—the final leg of a 335-mile trek across California that union members hoped would raise awareness about the bill. Several thousand supporters joined the farmworkers for the final mile of their march in Sacramento.
“It’s been seven decades—70 years—since Cesar and I started the farmworkers’ union,” UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta told the crowd. “I want to say this message to the growers, the ladrones (thieves): it is time that you recognize that farmworkers need a union, that they deserve a union.”
The UFW began their peregrinacion—or pilgrimage—to Sacramento on Aug. 3rd in the small agricultural community of Delano, where UFW founder Cesar Chavez began his own famous march across California 55 years earlier. For 24 days, the protesters braved 101-degree heat, busy highways and relentless blisters; they were joined by a rotating cast of political allies, including Martin Luther King III and Lorena Gonzalez, the Chief Officer of the California Labor Federation, AFL-CIO.
The UFW has been pushing Gov. Newsom to sign legislation like AB 2183 for years. The bill would give farmworkers more flexibility in union elections, including the option to vote by mail. Currently, farmworkers can only vote to unionize in person at designated polling places, which are regulated by California’s Agricultural Relations Board. These polling places are also located on agricultural employers’ property, which UFW representatives says leaves workers vulnerable to intimidation and retaliation.
Agricultural interests and chambers of commerce across the state vehemently opposed the legislation, arguing that union organizers are more likely to coerce workers to support a union drive if the voting system becomes more flexible. Supporters of the bill dismissed these arguments as fear-mongering. In a past interview with the Bay Area News Group, UFW Legislative and Political Director Giev Kashkooli said the bill is modeled on California’s 2016 Voter’s Choice Act, which enables California counties to conduct elections by mail and which has not resulted in an increase in election fraud.
But in its statement Friday morning, Gov. Newsom expressed skepticism about the voting process the bill would implement. “Our goal is to establish a system for fair elections,” the governor’s office said in a press release. “However, we cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks critical provisions to protect the integrity of the election process.”
Gov. Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year, claiming the bill “contained various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.”
For the UFW, the specter of legislative defeat comes at a transitional time politically. The union’s membership has statistically dropped to zero, and it has weathered multiple defeats on the state and federal level in the past few years—including a sweeping Supreme Court ruling last year, which effectively prohibited union representatives from meeting with farmworkers at their workplaces. However, the union’s organizing work around AB 2183 has also given them increased visibility and influential allies. Fifty legislators have co-signed this version of the voting rights bill, and several high-profile political figures urged Gov. Newsom to sign the bill on Friday.
“If the governor refuses to sign this bill we’ll be back,” said AFL-CIO head Lorena Gonzalez, who was previously an influential representative in the state legislature. “And we’ll march harder!”