Farmworker rights bill awaits Calif. gov’s signature

farmwork

Now awaiting California Gov. Jerry Brown's signature is a bill to greatly strengthen the rights of the state's 400,000 farmworkers. The measure passed the state legislature earlier this month after a major drive by the United Farm Workers union and its labor and community allies. The campaign included a 12-day march from the central California city of Madera through the scorching Central Valley to Sacramento.

SB 126 calls for immediate certification of a union if employer election violations could have affected a unionization vote, and a speeded-up process for Agricultural Labor Relations Board certification of elections. The ALRB could go to court to reinstate farmworkers illegally fired during union election drives, and mediation could take place after 90 days of contract bargaining instead of the current 180 days.

The bill emerged just two months after the campaign suffered a major blow when the governor vetoed an earlier bill to let farmworkers decide about a union through majority signup, or "card check," in addition to the current secret ballot election.

Brown, who during an earlier term as governor signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, codifying farmworker rights into law, claimed the original bill would significantly change the "guiding assumptions" of the ALRA in ways that weren't justified.

Undaunted, the farm workers kept up their campaign, and two months later, Brown outlined the proposals now incorporated in SB 126. The UFW says the governor is committed to signing the measure.

Both bills were introduced into the legislature by state Senate Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

Farm workers and their supporters celebrated the new bill's emergence at a Labor Day weekend rally at the state capitol in Sacramento. "We marched to Sacramento and Gov. Brown listened," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez told the crowd of over 5,000.

The UFW is vowing to continue the fight for majority signup.

"While we believe that SB 126 would significantly advance the cause for fair treatment of farmworkers, the UFW knows the only way to truly protect a farm worker's right to choose union representation is by allowing workers to vote away from the workplace and their bosses' threats," UFW spokesperson Maria Machuca said in an e-mail interview.
Machuca added that the union sees majority signup as "the only union process that would protect farm workers regardless of whose administration is in the State Capitol." Calling Brown "sympathetic to the farmworkers' struggle," she said many of the measures he put in place as governor in the late 70s and early 80s were not enforced under succeeding governors, or were "manipulated and underfunded," making them ineffective in ensuring workers' rights to intimidation-free union election.

Farmworkers' need for safer working conditions, as well as better wages, is underscored by the heat-related deaths of at least 16 California farm workers since 2005, even after a state regulation to prevent heat deaths was issued at the UFW's urging. Cal-OSHA, the state's work safety agency, was investigating the deaths of at least two more farm workers, possibly from heat exposure.

A case that drew major attention was the death of pregnant 17-year-old farmworker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez in 2008, after collapsing of heat stroke and being denied medical aid by her bosses.

Photo: National Farm Workers Ministry // CC 2.0

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