Farmworker union fights against secret ballots
Labor officials say process allows firms to intimidate, but
industry leaders call bill 'undemocratic.'
By E.J. Schultz - Bee Capitol Bureau
Published May 14, 2007
WITH THE FARM LABOR movement in its infancy, legendary organizer Cesar
Chavez won a major victory in 1975 with the passage of a state law that
guaranteed secret ballot elections for farmworker unions.
Now the union Chavez helped found is fighting against secret ballots,
claiming the process allows for company intimidation -- and ultimately,
A bill backed by the United Farm Workers union would allow for workers
to sign cards instead of cast ballots in union elections. If a majority
of workers sign up, the union would be certified almost immediately.
Senate Bill 180 was authored by Carole Migden, D-San Francisco.
"Farmworkers' lives are hard enough -- this will make the process easier
for them to express themselves," said Richie Ross, a UFW lobbyist.
But industry leaders say the legislation is "undemocratic."
"It infringes on the very fundamental right of the farmworker to a
secret ballot," said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape &
Tree Fruit League. "I don't believe you correct a perceived injustice by
creating a bigger injustice and taking away the employee's rights."
The right to secret ballots is cemented in the 1975 Agricultural Labor
Relations Act. In the wake of the law, farm unions had great success
securing union contracts. But organizers have been stung by losses in
Farm unions, including the UFW, won only a little more than half of all
elections -- 73 of 132 -- between 1990 and October 2005, according to
data from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which oversees elections.
Labor leaders, in part, blame the process. Farmworkers wishing to join a
union must first submit a petition signed by a majority of employees.
The ALRB must then hold a secret ballot election within seven days.
Unions claim that during the waiting period, businesses discourage yes
votes by intimidating workers. The UFW says tactics include threatening
to close down if the union wins, firing or blacklisting pro-union
workers, or threatening to shutter company housing.
Such threats are considered unfair labor practices and are illegal under
state law. The remedy is to set aside the election results.
SB 180 would allow for workers to choose an alternative method known as
Employees wishing to join a union would be asked to sign cards. If more
than 50 percent of workers sign up, organizers would submit a petition
to the ALRB. The ALRB would then have 48 hours to verify the signatures
and certify the union.
The bill also would levy new fines for unfair labor practices.
SB 180 passed the Senate Labor and Industrial Relations Committee on a
3-2 vote, with Republicans opposed. It will be heard today by the Senate
Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position. But his
administration's Labor & Workforce Development Agency opposes the bill,
saying in a letter that the proposed change "undermines" the right to a
secret ballot election.
Bedwell said the card-check system is unfair because it limits the
company's chance to state its case -- by reminding employees of their
current benefits, for example.
"Both sides should be heard," he said.
Workers might agree to an election but vote against a union once in the
voting booth, he said.
"At that point, they look at it and (say) I don't believe the union is
going to do anything more than what is already done for me," he said.
But union officials say their message gets drowned out because
organizers have limited access to workers in the days before an election.
"The current system is like an election in which one side gets
television (advertising) ... and the other side doesn't get TV -- they
only get to go door to door," Ross said.
Access wasn't as big an issue in the union's early days when organizers
could reliably find workers laboring on the same fields day after day,
he said. Now, with labor contractors involved, workers get shifted to a
different location almost every day, so it's "tough to even find them,"
The UFW believes that card-check organizing would level the playing
field because organizers would not have to worry about companies
campaigning against the union in the days leading to an election.
Card-check organizing is not unprecedented. Some public sector employees
are covered by the provision, including teachers and local government
workers. In addition to farmworkers, labor leaders are fighting for a
card-check system for tribal casino workers.
The Legislature's Democrats last year blocked ratification of several
gaming compacts agreed to by the Schwarzenegger administration because
the deals left out card-check provisions. The issue continues to stall
approval of the deals this year.