OAKLAND, Calif. - A landmark bill passed by both legislative houses, to make it easier for California's 400,000 farmworkers to choose a union, will soon be on its way to Democratic Gov. Jerry Brown's desk for signature.
SB 104, the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act, was introduced by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. It would give farm workers the option to vote on a union through majority sign-up, in addition to the current secret ballot election.
The United Farm Workers union (UFW) says the measure would allow workers to better protect themselves by choosing whether or not they want union organization away from the threats and coercion employers often exert when union elections are held on farm property.
At a June 7 press conference on the steps of City Hall, before the Oakland City Council passed a resolution supporting the bill, Alameda Labor Council head Josie Camacho told a crowd of union and community activists the bill will give farmworkers "the human right to be able to collectively bargain for decent wages and especially decent working conditions when they labor in the fields."
Camacho cited the tragic death three years ago of 17-year-old farmworker Maria Isavel Vasquez Jimenez, who collapsed from heat exhaustion following more than nine straight hours of field work without shade or water. "This is immoral, this is unjust," she said. "We stand in solidarity with the farm workers and with all workers for the right to collectively bargain."
The UFW is urging supporters of the measure to sign its petition to Brown, calling on him to sign the measure.
"Without this bill," the union says, "farmworkers will continue to face unbearable conditions and pressure. Many workers don't have access to basic things like shade, water, heat training or even breaks during the hot summer days.
"And nothing will change. Wage and hour violations will continue. Overexposure to pesticides will go unchallenged. Sexual harassment will remain rampant and the health crises caused by a lack of sanitation and lax safety standards will continue to plague farmworkers."
As employers did when the Employee Free Choice Act was introduced into Congress in 2009, agricultural business interests claim the Fair Treatment for Farm Workers Act would take away workers' right to a secret ballot election.
But the UFW points out that the measure would keep the secret ballot option while adding the right to form a union when a majority of workers sign cards showing their wish to do so.
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed three earlier versions of SB 104.
In 1975, during an earlier term as governor, Brown, a Democrat, signed the California Agricultural Relations Act, which for the first time established labor rights for California farmworkers similar to those of the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.
Photo: Marilyn Bechtel/PW