Sep 15, 2021
‘Card check’ veto called for at California capitol rally

Amid a punishing drought, a bill that would make it easier for unions to organize California farms and ranches has landed on the governor’s desk.

A contingent of farmers and farm employees visited Sacramento recently to suggest that some priorities needed reordering.

“The focus in California should be keeping California agriculture employed and working,” California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson said in a speech on the Capitol’s south steps.

Johansson suggested that focus is being undermined by legislation now on the desk of Gov. Gavin Newsom. He joined rally participants in calling for a veto.

Assembly Bill 616, by Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone of Scotts Valley, would overturn a longstanding tradition of secret-ballot elections for union organizing. It would allow for an organizing system known as “card check.” Critics say it would leave workers vulnerable to undue coercion or potential retribution if they fail to sign paperwork to unionize.

Patricia Lopez, a labor manager at Duarte Nursery in Hughson, delivered a fiery speech in protest. Flanked at the Capitol by some two dozen of her colleagues, she said the change in organizing rules could actually diminish the voice of farm employees.

“We are a very important labor force here in California,” she said in her speech, delivered in Spanish. “We are essential workers who maintain the food supply for people across our nation. Today, we agricultural workers are here to tell the governor … that we don’t need AB 616. We don’t need any union to come to our places of work to decide what is good or isn’t good for us. It’s up to us, the workers. We know what we need and what we don’t need.”

Lopez spelled that out after the rally: “We need our jobs,” she said. “We need water for agriculture, for our communities.”

AB 616 reached the governor’s desk Sept. 8 after clearing the Assembly and Senate.

The legislative counsel’s analysis of the bill says “existing law requires the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify the results of an election conducted by secret ballot of employees in a collective bargaining unit to designate a collective bargaining representative” – or union.

AB 616 instead would designate a secret ballot election as a “polling place election” and would allow alternative voting methods.

According to the legislative counsel, those new rules would permit agricultural employees “to select their labor representatives through a … ballot card election by submitting a petition to the board.” The vote would consist of “cards signed by a majority of employees in the bargaining unit.”

After the petition and ballot cards go to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the board would have five days to determine whether the paperwork is legitimate. If it is, the workplace is unionized.

“It is a bill that allows for a simple card check,” Johansson said after the rally. “This Legislature likes to call it a mail-in ballot and refer to it the same way” as a general-election ballot. AB 616, however, is “completely different than that,” Johansson said.

“It denies the collective voice of employees the opportunity to get together and decide who they want to have represent them,” Johansson said.

He argued that the bill “doesn’t take into account all the farmworkers’ voices, who should have a voice when it comes to determining who represents them, how they want to be represented and what they want their workplace to look like.”

The bill “takes away the secret ballot,” Johansson said, and “opens (farm employees) to intimidation and coercion.”

Lopez said lawmakers and the governor should be focusing on water supplies for agriculture rather than the unionization bill.

“If the farmers don’t have water, we’re not going to have food,” Lopez said. “We’re not going to have work. We’re not going to be able to feed our families, to pay our rent, to pay everything that we need. This is our biggest concern.”

Ron Peterson, who runs a dairy farm and grows silage crops in Stanislaus County, echoed those concerns.

“We’re real concerned about water and what the state is doing with our water, and the fact that they’re going and taking water rights that have been long precedents, and just shoving them aside—that’s definitely worth protecting,” Peterson said. “Without water, there’s not going to be food. California agriculture will no longer exist if we don’t have the water to keep growing.”

Peterson said AB 616 takes the ballot away from farm employees.

“For workers to all of a sudden show up one day and be part of a union, and never have a chance to actually voice their opinion and vote on that—we just don’t think that is the right way,” Peterson said. “That’s not the American way of one person, one vote.”

Katerina Kronauge, who works in agricultural education and membership for the Yolo County Farm Bureau, said she and her colleagues came to the rally in support of California Farm Bureau’s efforts.

“We thought that this was a really important thing to stand up for, and we really appreciate what the California Farm Bureau has been doing for the workers and for agriculture in California,” Kronauge said.

Water was top of mind for her, too.

“Early in the year, people were trying to decide whether or not they should plant,” Kronauge said. “There was no guarantee that they would be able to irrigate through the season up to harvest. There’s a lot of people that fallowed land this year and are going to be hurting because they’re not going to have an income from that.”

That has implications for farm employment, something Johansson said in his rally speech that he would stand to protect.

“The one thing we are not going to check in California Farm Bureau: We are not going to check having our members, our employees and our communities silenced when it comes to representation and how we handle employment in California,” Johansson said in his speech. “We’re proud of the jobs that we create. We’re proud that we really make California essential. Think about it—we make California essential, and now it’s time for the governor to recognize that we’re not essential if there’s no one left to work the land.”

Lopez said she was heartened by the farm employees who came to the rally.

“We need more people to come and express our concerns,” she said, “to tell everybody to come right here, at the house of the government, to tell them we don’t need this.

“We need more jobs, affordable rent, more education for our kids,” Lopez said. “More important things to fix than to be worried about the 616.”

Kevin Hecteman, California Farm Bureau Federation

With fellow employees behind her, Duarte Nursery labor manager Patricia Lopez, holding microphone, speaks at a rally last week at the Capitol in Sacramento. Listening at left is California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson. The two urged a veto of a bill that would make it easier for unions to organize farm employees and said attention should be paid to water and other crises facing California farms and ranches. Photo: Kevin Hecteman




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