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Brown vetoes farmworker union bill

by Chris Hinyub, published

A bill that would have made it easier for farm laborers to organize was recently vetoed by Gov. Jerry Brown. The unexpected move was seen as a concession to legislative Republicans whose minority party didn't get a say in the state's recent budget deal. As far as the United Farm Workers (UFW) and their Democratic allies in the senate were concerned, it was a betrayal of trust. The moves that career politicians will make to steer the middle-path are sometimes despicable, sometimes admirable, depending on where you're standing.


Similar proposals -- to have unions bargain for agricultural employees with a simple majority consent from signature cards, without elections – were unsuccessfully pushed four times during Schwarzenegger's tenor as governor. Supporters of the most recent “card check” measure, authored by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg (D-Sacramento), thought they had a champion in the governor because of his close ties to union leaders in the agricultural sector. We are talking about the same Brown who as governor in 1975 signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. It was the first legislation of its kind, allowing farm workers to organize via secret ballots. Fond mentions of UFW founder Cesar Chavez in several of Brown's campaign speeches last year helped to raise expectations among union promoters.


Current UFW president Arturo Rodriguez isn't mincing words with the union's view of Brown now. "To us it's a real clear decision. This governor has decided to side with the rich against the powerless," Rodriguez says. Union leaders are vowing to keep up the fight.


According to the Los Angeles Times, the pressure on Brown to sign the bill was “intense”:


     “For nearly two weeks, UFW representatives flooded the Capitol, urging Brown to approve the measure. They held protests and vigils outside Brown's office and even brought Chavez's chair to the governor, inviting him to sit in it and ratify the legislation.”


Brown's veto upset more than just labor partners.  It ruffled the feathers of fellow party leaders who've made the legislation a top priority over the past year, including the ALRA's original author, Rep. Howard L. Berman (D-Vallet Village).


In his veto message, Brown defended his decision to return SB 104 to lawmakers unsigned by citing his achievements with the union over three decades ago."I am not yet convinced that the far-reaching provisions of this bill – which alter in a significant way the guiding assumptions of the ALRA – are justified," he wrote.


Supporters of the bill claim that the current system allows business owners to coerce field laborers into voting against their own interests.  Opponents of the bill included an impressive coalition of commercial and agricultural interests, including the California Restaurant Assn., the California Grocers Assn., the Western Growers Assn. and the Chamber of Commerce. They countered that the law imposed excessive fines against those who are found to commit unfair labor practices and that those fines should have applied to both sides. Steinberg's bill only penalized growers. The chance for unchecked intimidation by union organizers would have been too great, opponents said.

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