When a politician who has championed the cause of farmworkers vetoes a bill that would help this vulnerable group of workers organize, something is very wrong. But that’s just what happened this week. California’s Governor Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed the “Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act”. The bill would have allowed farmworkers to form or affiliate with a union via a petition, rather than through an election held in the workplace, where employees are too often subject to intimidation by bosses.
Three decades ago, Brown signed a bill to give agricultural workers the right to unionize by secret ballot. So what happened in the ensuing 30 years? In his veto message, Brown said that while he was sympathetic with the aims of the bill, he feared it could adversely affect the framework of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. That’s dubious. The process the bill would have enabled is called “majority signup election” and also known as “card-check.” It also would have allowed the union to bargain for employees without holding an election, by simply collecting signatures from a majority of workers on cards saying they wanted representation. It’s the same argument opponents of the Employee Free Choice Act, the federal legislation backed by unions, used to tamp down support.
The farmworker proposal has been the top legislative goal for years for the United Farm Workers. Brown has spoken– more like bragged – about his friendship with the UFW’s founder and labor icon, Caesar Chavez. Chavez is likely rolling over in his grave after his old friend and champion vetoed this bill.
This is both a sad day for farmworkers and a lost opportunity. California could have lead the way for other states, but instead a governor who was once their champion has failed them. NCL knows from experience that the cause of farmworkers—and their children—flies under the radar. We’ve taken a lead in pushing for the Children’s Act for Responsible Employment (CARE), which would help get children out of the fields and into schools. Farmworker conditions continue to be among the worst in America. These men and women—and children—often spend 12 hour days in the hot sun picking our fruits and vegetables so Americans can have healthy produce on their tables. They live in substandard housing, get no health care, pension or sick leave.
“What never changes in politics is power. Gov. Brown accepted the arguments made by the powerful agribusiness lobby and rejected the cause of powerless farm workers,” United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement.
If we can’t count on one-time allies like Governor Gerry Brown to defend the cause of farmworkers, the status of working men and women is more dire than I had thought.