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Under pressure from Biden, Newsom signs bill to help California farmworkers unionize

San Francisco Chronicle 9/28/2022 By Sophia Bollag
Farmworkers march to the State Capitol in Sacramento in August to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill to help them unionize. © Andri Tambunan, Freelance / Special To The Chronicle

Farmworkers march to the State Capitol in Sacramento in August to urge Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill to help them unionize.

SACRAMENTO — Following pressure from President Joe Biden, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and organized labor, Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a bill that aims to help farmworkers unionize, his office said Wednesday.

The governor’s action represents a reversal from last month, when he said he didn’t support the measure, AB2183 , and urged lawmakers to amend it. Instead, they voted to send him the bill without the changes he requested.

Newsom’s office announced that he signed the bill with the understanding that the United Farm Workers Union and the California Labor Federation would work to pass additional legislation next year to address some of his remaining concerns.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” Newsom said in a statement. “Our state has been defined by the heroic activism of farmworkers, championed by American icons like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong. California is proud to stand with the next generation of leaders carrying on this movement.”

Although organized labor holds powerful sway over the Legislature, there’s no way for outside groups and the governor to guarantee the outcome of future legislation, which must win approval from a majority of state lawmakers. In 2023, the Legislature will continue to be overwhelmingly Democratic, but recent redistricting means both the Assembly and Senate will see significant turnover. The November election will determine the composition of the Legislature in 2023.

Pressure on Newsom to sign AB2183 grew over Labor Day weekend when Biden announced he supported it .

“Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic,” the Democratic president wrote in a statement. “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.”

Pelosi appealed directly to Newsom in a tweet on Aug. 30.

“CA farmworkers provide for our families — but far too many can’t provide for theirs because they are exploited and don’t have a voice on the job,” the San Francisco Democrat’s campaign account tweeted. “I urge the governor to sign #AB2183.”

United Farm Workers, the union sponsoring the bill, staged a 335-mile march to rally support for the measure last month. Their route from Delano in Kern County to the Capitol in Sacramento mirrored the famous march labor leaders Chavez and Huerta led in 1966 in protest of poor labor conditions and low pay for farmworkers. Huerta, now 92, joined this year’s march for its final stretch to the Capitol building.

The measure faced fierce opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and other business groups, which argued it was an attempt by United Farm Workers to force agricultural workers to unionize.

Newsom has vetoed a version of the bill last year, arguing it had “inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.”

Supporters said they crafted this year’s version to address those concerns. The new law will create two new ways for workers to unionize. Under the first scenario, an agricultural employer would agree to a “labor peace agreement” and refrain from advocating for or against unionization, including forcing workers to listen to anti-union arguments. Workers could cast their ballots by mail.

A second option would be used when an employer does not agree to refrain from disparaging union efforts. In that case, the workers who want to unionize would need to prove a majority of workers have signed up to form a union to petition the Agricultural Labor Relations Board for certification.

The changes Newsom and labor groups agreed to would eliminate the first option and cap the number of workplaces that can be unionized through the petition process. They also include what the Newsom administration characterizes as additional protections to ensure “worker confidentiality and safety.”

Supporters said the bill was necessary because farmworkers face aggressive union-busting efforts by their employers.

The California Chamber of Commerce said the anti-disparagement agreements in the bill would muzzle employers from discussing unions at all.

Republicans lawmakers who spoke against the bill argued it would undermine farmworkers’ right to vote with a secret ballot.

Sophia Bollag is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: Twitter: @SophiaBollag

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