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Newsom signs bill expanding union rights for farmworkers

The bill introduced by Assemblymember Mark Stone creates new ways for farmworkers to vote in union elections, like mail-in ballots

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill Wednesday expanding union rights for farmworkers (AB 2183).

Newsom previously said he couldn’t support the bill in its current form due to concerns about voting integrity and implementation. But a release from his office says Newsom, United Farm Workers and the California Labor Federation agreed in a letter to pass clarifying language on the bill in the next legislative session.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” said Governor Newsom. “Our state has been defined by the heroic activism of farmworkers, championed by American icons like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong. California is proud to stand with the next generation of leaders carrying on this movement.” 

Political analyst Steve Swatt said  there was pressure from farmworkers, organized labor groups and pressure from progressives to signed the bill, all of which are his "natural constituencies."

"I think the big message that he is sending today is that he is sticking by his natural friends, organized labor, the farmworkers, progressives in California, and that they're important to him, and that he wanted to find a way to somehow sign this bill even though he was not 100% behind it," Swatt said.

What is AB 2183?

The bill introduced by Assemblymember Mark Stone creates new ways for farmworkers to vote in union elections, like mail-in ballots, in addition to the current in-person voting process.

"AB 2183 would give farm workers the ability to make decisions at home, on their own, and on their own time," said Stone. "Farm workers typically vote on a grower's site, under the watchful eyes and influence of that grower or the labor contractor, so there's a real question of whether that vote is their own, absent of coercion or pressure."

What changed?

The agreement between Newsom, UFW, and the California Labor Federation includes a cap on the number of card-check petitions and allows the ALRB to protect confidentiality.

Who was advocating for it?

Teresa Romero, the first woman president of UFW, led a march from Delano to Sacramento. The 335-mile journey to the capitol started on Aug. 3 and ended on Aug. 26. The goal of the march was to push for Newsom to sign the bill. UFW said voting in-person can be intimidating and has led to some deportations.

"Anything we want to get for farm workers; it takes time and a lot of effort," said Romero. "United Farm Workers was established to protect farm workers, not only with union representation, but other needs, like legislative work."

Then, President Joe Biden made a rare move in suggesting Newsom sign the bill. He said the state has the largest population of farmworkers, and the least California owes them is an easier path forward to decide if they want to unionize.

Just last week, Rage Against the Machine guitarist Tom Morello hosted a free concert at the Capitol in support of UFW.

"I can't explain his [Newsom’s] rationale for not signing this bill. He is a grower himself and maybe he's embarrassed. He's going to be embarrassed at Thanksgiving dinner when he sits around with the other millionaires and billionaires and say 'Why did you sign that bill, so now my workers are organizing,'" Morello said.

Who was against it?

Dozens of agriculture grower associations and local Chambers of Commerce opposed the bill. The California Chamber of Commerce put the legislation on its "Job Killers" list, saying the bill "limits an employee's ability to independently and privately vote for unionization in the workplace, by essentially eliminating a secret ballot election and replacing it with the submission of representation cards signed by over 50% of the employees, which leaves employees susceptible to coercion and manipulation by labor organizations."

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson responded after Newsom signed the bill Wednesday.

“The California Farm Bureau is deeply disappointed in Gov. Newsom’s decision to sign the misguided union organizing legislation, Assembly Bill 2183. Farm Bureau stands with California’s agricultural employees and will continue to defend their right to make uncoerced choices about union representation. However, the governor’s unfortunate decision to sign this bill will create a mail-in balloting system that threatens the integrity of secret ballot elections and leaves farm employees vulnerable to intimidation by union organizers with an obvious interest in the outcome. It also forces California’s farmers and ranchers to choose to give up free speech and private property rights in a dubious trade to allow their employees a real voice in a union election.”

Editor's note: Video in this story is from previous coverage of protests.

WATCH MORE ON ABC10Tom Morello backs farmworkers at Capitol rally

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