By Sheri Williams
After a tense fight last year with Gov. Gavin Newsom, California farmworkers in May finalized a deal that will make it easy for them to unionize.
Newsom signed Assembly Bill 113 on May 15, a follow-up to legislation he signed last fall.
Under the provisions of the new law, farmworkers can now vote in union elections by the card-check methods, which protects them from employer harassment and retaliation.
“Allowing farmworkers to organize without the fear of intimidation and deportation has been our dream in California for decades. Nothing good comes easy, but we’re excited we finally have this tool,” said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, head of the California Labor Federation.
The bill signing marks the end of a tough legislative fight by the United Farm Workers and their union allies. Last year, as the original bill, Assembly Bill 2183, made its way through the Legislature, Newsom said he did not support it and would not sign it.
Undeterred, UFW joined with the California Labor Federation and other unions to fight for his signature. Farm Workers marched more than 300 miles across the Central Valley to Sacramento in the summer heat to draw attention to the bill, rallying on the steps of the Capitol.
That march was meant to follow in the footsteps of the famous protest Cesar Chavez undertook with farmworkers in 1966 when Chavez and the National Farm Workers Association, which later became UFW, led a march along the same route.
The determination of the present-day marchers drew notice of Democrats across the country, with Nancy Pelosi, Kamala Harris and President Joe Biden voicing support.
“I strongly support California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act (AB 2183), which will give California’s agricultural workers greater opportunity to organize and collectively bargain for better wages, benefits, and working conditions,” Biden said in a statement at the time. “Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic. In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union. I am grateful to California’s elected officials and union leaders for leading the way.”
The enormous organizing drive by farmworkers and unions caused Newsom to change his mind and sign the bill, with the promise that UFW would work with him this year to fix his concerns.
Until the new law, farmworkers who wanted to unionize often found themselves forced into secret-ballot votes held on their worksites. Many said this system had intimidation built into it and discouraged unionization since employers could easily see who was involved in the organizing drives. At times, threats of deportation against organizers were used since many California farmworkers are undocumented, along with other intimidation tactics.
Union organizers said the new law will give farmworkers “a fighting chance” to unionize.