In summary

Farmworkers and marchers in 13 California cities asked Gov. Newsom to sign a bill that would make voting easier in union elections.

On César Chávez Day, a group of about 50 farmworkers, advocates, and community members gathered in Fresno to march in honor of the late labor leader — and to once again ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would make it easier for farmworkers to vote in union elections.

“Farmworkers are asking what could be more important than meeting with farmworkers on César Chávez Day,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers, in a recent interview with The Bee. On Wednesday, Newsom’s office confirmed that he and his family were on vacation in Central and South America.

The march was part of a series of events organized by the UFW and its foundation in 13 rural and urban California cities in which farmworkers gathered to raise awareness about the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, AB 2183, a bill that would give farmworkers the option to vote by mail in union elections.

Among those marching in Fresno on Thursday were central San Joaquin Valley elected officials: Santos Garcia, the mayor of Madera, and Jose Sigala, a councilmember from Tulare currently running for state assembly for the 33rd District.

“I’m here to lend support to this legislation,” said Sigala. “Hopefully, the governor sees not only this action but the action across the state,” he said.

The coordinated marches took place less than a year after the UFW organized a march to the French Laundry — a reference to the pricey meal Newsom had with lobbyists as he asked other Californians to avoid mixed groups and indoor settings during the coronavirus pandemic — after Newsom vetoed an initial version of the bill, AB 616, last September.

Labor leaders, assemblymembers, and farmworkers say they are hopeful that the governor will sign the legislation into law this year.

“I hope it passes,” said Anthony Arano, a Fresno-area resident who came out to support the march. “Latinos need to be heard — we’re part of this country, too.”

Legislators ‘hopeful’ governor will sign bill

Last year, Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, authored AB 616, a bill that would allow California farmworkers to vote for a union by mail instead of in-person secret ballot elections conducted on a grower’s property.

Farmworker advocates said that farmworkers feel intimidated during union elections, which under the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Act currently take place directly on growers’ property.

The bill is “pretty straightforward,” said Strater. “It’s to extend to farmworkers a more modernized, flexible choice when it comes to how they vote under union elections.”

Currently other non-agricultural unions covered by the National Labor Relations Act — the federal labor law that excludes farmworkers and domestic workers — already have alternative voting options during a union election.

Agriculture grower associations opposed the bill, and the California Chamber of Commerce included the legislation on its “job killer” list.

Photo by John Walker/The Fresno Bee
Photo by John Walker/The Fresno Bee

Union officials said they had been trying to meet with Newsom for months to discuss the bill prior to his veto and called the veto hypocritical since the governor was able to avoid recall in part due to the vote by mail option during the pandemic.

“He asked for votes by mail, that’s why he’s still in office,” said Lourdes Cardenas, a farmworker and union member from Fresno during Thursday’s march. “Why can’t we have the same rights?”

Legislators are confident that the bill will be signed this time around and have garnered even more support for the proposed legislation.

“This is something that the legislature finds very important. We have a lot of co-authors, we’ve generated a lot of interest among legislators,” said Stone in an interview with The Bee on Tuesday.

Fifty legislators have co-signed this year’s version of the voting rights bill.

“I’m very hopeful that what we put on the governor’s desk this year, he’ll sign,” he said.

The proposed legislation would allow farmworkers to vote either in an all-mail election or a more traditional polling-place type of election.

Stone’s office and the UFW, who are cosponsors of the bill, say they have been working with Newsom’s office on the suggested changes he detailed in his veto letter.

Learn more about legislators mentioned in this story

Mark Stone

Mark Stone

Former State Assembly, District 29 (Salinas)

Will the bill spur renewed UFW organizing?

While Strater said she hopes that the legislation will spur more union election activity, critics of the union aren’t as confident.

William Gould, an outspoken critic of the union who has served on state and federal labor relations boards, told The Bee in January that nobody is organizing the farmworkers.

“Even if this bill is reintroduced, I doubt that that’s going to change appreciably,” he said.

Last year, the Agriculture Labor Relations Board received only one request for union representation, from a cannabis farm in Southern California.

But Strater said that “with organizing work, there are no shortcuts.”

AB 2183 will “certainly empower” workers to come together, form committees, and organize themselves, said Strater, and “level the playing field between the workers and their employers.”

If passed, Strater said, the new bill will show farmworkers that the “final hurdle” of a union election vote “is not going to be so impossibly high.”

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.

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Melissa covers childhood poverty in the central San Joaquin Valley for The Fresno Bee in partnership with CalMatters' California Divide project. She is a Report for America corps member. Montalvo, a bilingual...