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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, 
union losses.

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 
recent years.

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 
"card-check" organizing.

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 
Appropriations Committee.

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," 
Ross said.

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.

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