Union in decline: UFW membership hits “statistically zero” as legal, political losses pile up

The union, which has seen membership fall far from its mid-20th Century founding, is struggling after a devastating 2021.

Following a crushing U.S. Supreme Court defeat last June that overturned a 47-year-old rule that granted United Farm Workers representatives virtually unfettered access to farming outfits to recruit workers, the union finds itself in a lurch, a new report says.

The court defeat was followed by an even more crucial legislative defeat that would have enacted a card-check voting system for farmworker union elections, all at the hands of Gov. Gavin Newsom.


From a CalMatters report:

The union found a lawmaker from a coastal agricultural district willing to carry a bill that would allow California farmworkers to vote for a union by mail, instead of in-person secret ballot elections conducted on a grower’s property. UFW political strategists sensed an opportunity, and Democrats, who control the Legislature, approved it.

But with the stroke of his veto pen, Gov. Gavin Newsom ended the UFW’s latest push for more union victories. The governor’s message cited “various inconsistencies” and “procedural issues,” and offered to look for opportunities to reform the state’s agricultural relations board, which mediates labor disputes. UFW officials said they asked to meet with Newsom for four months leading up to his veto. 

They never heard back.

The back-to-back defeats in 2021 underscore grim times for the union founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta, which is branding itself as “somewhere between a labor union and a movement,” has seen its ranks shrink considerably to the point that researchers found it

The union and its supporters say more collective bargaining is needed to blunt rising inequality by increasing wages for some of the lowest-paid workers in the country. But the union has never gained a foothold in the industry. In fact, membership is so low that UC Merced researchers say farmworker union membership is now statistically zero. Today, UFW focuses its efforts on political advocacy, hoping for better election outcomes by making accommodations such as at-home voting. Even if the measure passes, it’s unclear whether that will lead to more members.

Compounding issues, the report notes, is that easier union voting rules haven’t stopped a slide in membership via decertification elections, or firing of the union, as was heavily publicized at Reedley-based Gerawan Farming, now branded Prima-Wawona.

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