By Vicky Boyd
A contingent of farmers, farm workers and ag industry representatives converged on the state Capitol recently to send a loud message to the governor to veto Assembly Bill 616. Similar to bills that former Govs. Jerry Brown and Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed, the current legislation would strip farmworkers of democratic protection including the right to secret ballots during unionization votes.
Ultimately, Gov. Gavin Newsom listened and vetoed the bill. At the same time, he directed the Labor and Workforce Development Agency to work with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and stakeholders to develop new policies to address the issue.
Like many other recent pieces of labor legislation, AB 616 was not developed with the best interests of most farmworkers in mind, said San Joaquin Farm Bureau President David Strecker.
“It’s not benefiting the people they say it’s going to benefit,” said Strecker, who farms row crops in the Delta. “It will benefit union organizations and those types of things. It won’t do anything for the workers.”
Calling it a “zombie bill” that keeps returning, California Farm Bureau Federation President Jamie Johannson said the legislation opens workers up to coercion.
“Having one year to collect the ballots makes no sense,” he said. “AB 616 doesn’t take into account all of the farmworkers’ privacy and that they should be free in who should represent them and what they want their work place to look like. This takes away the secret ballot.”
Strecker, his counterparts in other counties as well as CFBF leaders urged Farm Bureau members to contact the governor’s office and tell him to veto AB 616.
Speaking in Spanish on the Capitol steps, Paty Lopez, human resources manager for Duarte Nursery in Hughson, also made an impassioned plea to the governor to veto the bill. She was joined by a busload of coworkers who carried signs, such as “Guardar mi voto secreto” – protect my secret vote.
Lopez has worked in union shops as well as 32 years with the non-union Duarte Nursery. She said lawmakers did not ask the majority of farmworkers, who are non-union, whether they needed a bill such as AB 616. Legislators took the same path when they passed AB 1066 in 2016, which phased in an overtime threshold for agricultural workers. On Jan. 1, 2022, agricultural employers with more than 25 workers must begin paying overtime for more than 40 hours worked in a week.
“Before, we were working 60 hours a week,” Lopez said. “Now it’s only 40 hours a week. That’s not right. We need our hours back.”
As a result of AB 1066, she said, many employers have restricted workers’ hours to avoid paying overtime. With fewer hours, many of her counterparts have had to take second jobs to support their families. Lopez also called on the governor to address more pressing issues, such as water, infrastructure, affordable housing, affordable education and homelessness.
The current secret ballot system
Currently, voting to unionize workers on a farm or packinghouse takes place through a secret ballot election at a polling place at or near the workplace. It is supervised by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
AB 616 would do away with that and replace it with a system known as “card check.” Bill proponents say it is similar to mail-in ballots.
But that is not the case, said Bryan Little, CFBF director of employment policy. The bill allows unions to receive ballot cards prefilled out by labor organizers. All employees would need to do is sign the cards, which would then be sent to ALRB for certification.
Because the system doesn’t guarantee voter anonymity, it opens workers to potential pressure or intimidation, Little said. It also potentially limits ALRB impartial supervision of the election because voting is conducted offsite and for a prolonged period of time.
“Part of a secret ballot is for the ALRB to supervise the election so no one will intimidate the employees,” he said. “People don’t seem to understand this. Workers need the protection of having a secret ballot.”
This isn’t the first time a bill that would eliminate secret ballots for a unionization vote has wound its way through the state Legislature. In a surprising move, Brown vetoed a similar bill – Senate Bill 104 – in 2011, saying it significantly altered the framework of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act he signed in 1975.
Brown’s predecessor, Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed four similar bills during his tenure as governor.
AB 616, authored by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Scotts Valley, passed the Senate on Aug. 26 and the Assembly on Sept. 1.