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California Has New Law to Stop Intimidation of Farmworkers

posted on October 14, 2011


 FRESNO, Calif. (AP) - California has a new law that will allow
state regulators to automatically certify union elections by
farmworkers if they determine growers used threats or intimidation
toward workers in the election process.
     The law, signed by Gov. Jerry Brown late Sunday, is part of a
compromise after union efforts to change the fundamental way
farmworkers organize failed earlier this year.
     The United Farm Workers of America, whose membership has
dwindled in recent years, says the new law will keep growers more
accountable but doesn't solve the issue of intimidation.
     "It's not what we want, not what we feel we really need to
benefit a large number of farmworkers," said Arturo Rodriguez, UFW
president. "But it's an improvement over what we had before.
Clearly the current system was not working. It offered an incentive
for the growers to violate the law, because they had no reason to
obey it."
     Farmworkers previously called for majority sign-up elections,
also known as card-check balloting, that would have allowed workers
to vote by signing petitions away from the fields. Farmers and
agricultural organizations vehemently opposed the moved due to
possible election violations by union organizers.
     During his first stint as governor, Brown in 1975 signed the
California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which gave workers the
right to hold secret ballot elections. However, he vetoed the
card-check bill in June.
     Brown and Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, who
authored the vetoed bill, compromised on the new law that became an
amendment to the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
     Growers said they were not happy with the new law, because
previous elections protections were sufficient.
     "We're not pleased with the bill and we don't think this law
was justified. That said, we recognize that it's not card-check,"
said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of
Winegrape Growers. "But it's much easier now for a grower to get
tripped up; there is less of margin of error. So growers will have
to rely more heavily on consultants and lawyers to make sure they
won't run afoul" of the new law.
     Growers also worried about what could constitute misconduct and
when the law could be applied.
     The Agricultural Labor Relations Board says misconduct by
growers will have to be egregious and include pervasive threats,
discharges or other actions against workers for an election to be
automatically certified.
     The law also makes it easier to obtain preliminary injunctive
relief from the courts to reinstate fired employees if an employer
is charged with unfair labor practices. In addition, it spells out
circumstances under which mandatory mediation may be requested by
unions or employers.
     "It's a rather exclusive remedy," said Rich Matteis,
administrator of the California Farm Bureau Federation. "We want
to make sure this law is applied only in the most serious cases,
not just for any nominal infractions."
     The UFW said the new law is much needed because employers have
used threats and intimidation to influence many elections.
     In a hotly contested 2005 organizing election at Giumarra
Vineyards, one of the country's largest table grape growers, the
union had collected cards supporting a union vote that were signed
by more than 70 percent of the vineyard's 3,000 workers.
     But when the election was held, the union lost with 48 percent
of the vote.
     The vineyard denied committing any misconduct. A state examiner
found the vineyard had intimidated workers and threw out the
election. However, the workers were demoralized and no second vote
was requested.
     The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board acknowledged the
situation illustrated a larger systemic problem and called the
election process "a meaningless exercise" that only encourages
employer misconduct.
     "When you do that to immigrant workers, especially workers who
are undocumented and afraid, it has a tremendous impact on them,"
Rodriguez said.
     Because of such intimidation, Rodriguez said, the UFW has been
hesitant to use the election process. Not only have elections not
lead to union certification, process led to worker activists being
identified and fired, Rodriguez said.
     Labor relations board data show the union filed for fewer than
30 elections during the past nine years. It has not filed for a
single election in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of
California's agriculture, since 2006.
     Meanwhile, nationwide UFW membership has fallen from more than
70,000 in the 1970s to what officials say is about 27,000 workers
today. California alone has 460,000 agricultural workers.
     It's hard to tell whether the new law will make a big
difference, said Philip Martin, a professor of agricultural and
resource economics at the University of California, Davis.
     "This is a very evolutionary change, not revolutionary," he
said.
     But by making unionization easier, Martin said, it will put more
pressure on farmworker wages.
     Rodriguez said the UFW will continue to push for card-check
voting.
     Though he didn't offer a timeline, he said the card-check
legislation - which has been adopted by legislators and vetoed five
times by governors - would be reintroduced.
     "The reality is, a farmworkers still has to sign the card there
in the fields and testify at a hearing when the grower is violating
the law," Rodriguez said. "Those are big risks that many are not
willing to take."


Tags: agriculture borders farm workers unions