Agriculture · California

Newsom vetoes bill to end secret ballot farmworker union elections

Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a top-priority bill for the United Farm Workers on Wednesday that would have relaxed voting to organize workers into the union and eliminated the secret ballot.

The bill, Assembly Bill 616, would have allowed farmworkers to receive ballots at their homes and fill them out outside of the workplace. Previously, all union elections were held in person as secret ballot elections.

The veto arrived as UFW organizers and supporters were in their first day of marching to Sacramento from Visalia.

Shortly after the veto was announced, the UFW – typically staunch supporters of Newsom – said it would march “towards the French Laundry , hoping to finally meet with the Governor.”

The California Legislature advanced the bill in the waning days of the 2021 session with a 52-19 vote from the Assembly, which came a week after the Senate supported it by a margin of 24-11. 

The proposal was not without controversy, attracting claims from farm advocates that it would create real-world instances of worker intimidation and coercion by UFW organizers with no oversight from state regulators at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Opponents of the measure argued that the bill was a “card check” bill, which, in a union election, is a process where workers simply sign cards in support of unionization.

Employers must recognize the union if a majority of workers submit cards to unionize. 

“For interested parties (unions) to deliver a representation card to a select group of employees to sign in their presence smacks of voter coercion and intimidation – an anathema to the democratic voting process,” said California Fresh Fruit Association chief Ian LeMay following the bill’s passage in the legislature.

Sen. Scott Wilk, the GOP Senate Leader, similarly argued the chilling impact the law would have on workers in a letter to Newsom imploring him to veto the bill.

“This measure would violate a farmworker’s sacred right to vote in secret, which is a fundamental tenet of democracy,” Wilk wrote. “Without the protection of a secret ballot, there are no effective means to ensure free choice in the voting process.”

In a veto message, Gov. Gavin Newsom said the bill “contains various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.”

The bill, even as noted by Newsom, was crafted in the wake of a devastating U.S. Supreme Court ruling this summer, which stripped UFW organizers of the ability to trespass onto farm properties to organize workers.

In their ruling, six of the justices held that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s so-called “access rule” violated the Fifth Amendment’s prohibition of taking private property for public use without just compensation.

Alex Tavlian is the Executive Editor of The San Joaquin Valley Sun and Executive Director of Valley Future Foundation. You can reach Alex at alex.tavlian@sjvsun.com.