Will SB 1474 Kill Farmworkers' Secret Ballot?

AUGUST 18, 2010


Editors Note: This is a revised version of a story published Tuesday and later removed a few hours after Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s office contacted us. They disputed the basis of our story, but after further reporting, we’ve found that our original premise was, in fact, correct.

Republicans say a new bill passed by the Legislature will deny farm workers fair union elections – a charge that Democrats vehemently deny. According to Republican Assembly members, the union-supported bill is another attempt at “card check” — requiring employees to sign cards certifying their intention to form a union instead of voting by secret ballot. Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, who introduced the bill, counters that the bill’s intent is to address “employer misconduct” during union elections.

The bill, SB 1474, would require the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to choose a labor union for employees when an employer has been accused of interfering in a union election.

During an Aug. 16 Assembly floor session, Assemblyman Jose Solorio, D-Anaheim, presented Steinberg’s bill, which has been around in one form or another since February. Solorio said the current agriculture labor board voting structure “allows employers to profit by ignoring state law” through manipulation during union elections. Solorio said that SB 1474 “will create parity in elections, and is an effort to create balance by routing out the bad actors who violate farm workers’ rights.”

Assemblyman Juan Arambula, D-Fresno, agreed. “The system needs to be balanced,” he said. “If employers wrongfully interfere, the only remedy is for workers is to wait until next year.”

On the Republican side, Assemblyman Ted Gaines, R-Roseville, complained that Steinberg’s bill was gutted and amended, and never went through the assembly labor committee. Assemblyman Jim Nielsen, R-Redding, also finds fault with the bill. He said the bill circumvents the voting process for farm workers.

“It is ironic that unions, who have fought for years to give employees the right to unionize through a secret ballot process, have decided that the right to cast a ballot is no longer needed,” Nielsen said Monday night during an Assembly floor session. Nielsen further noted that the ALRB has previously fought secret ballots, and called the bill “a perversion of the secret ballot.”

Existing law provides for a secret ballot process for agricultural workers. The original version of this bill would have permitted agricultural employees to select their labor representatives by submitting a petition to the farm labor governing board accompanied by cards signed by a majority of the employees — known as a “card check” majority vote process — instead of by secret ballot. Card check selection processes are controversial because they lack the secret ballot’s protections against voter intimidation.

But according to Chris Norden, Nielsen’s legislative director, the final version of the bill would authorize the labor board to set aside an election where there has been alleged “misconduct” — which is undefined in all versions of SB 1474 — by the employer, thereby denying employees the right to determine the outcome of the election. The labor relations board could then certify a labor union as the exclusive bargaining representative for agricultural employees. Norden said that Steinberg’s bill still violates employees’ voting rights by authorizing the ALRB to disqualify a fair labor election.

Alicia Trost, Steinberg’s press secretary, said that SB 1474 has changed dramatically since February.  “In its original form, [it] was a card check bill,” Trost said. “It is no longer card check. Now it’s about ‘right to remedy’.”

When asked to explain how a labor union can allege misconduct by an employer during the election process and get the ALRB to instead chose a union to represent employees, Trost said, “The bill goes the other way, too.” When asked for clarification, Trost abruptly ended the phone call without finishing the statement, saying said she had to do another interview.

In an e-mail sent before our phone conversation, Trost explained the bill this way: “Basically it maintains the secret ballot but now provides a remedy for employees and employers when the ALRB has found that misconduct has taken place in an election (from either employers or unions).” She included the most recent version of the bill, in the e-mail.

According to the senate analysis of the bill, the state Legislature passed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act  in 1975 “to ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.” The act allowed for a secret ballot election and protections for agricultural workers so they could privately decide and vote — without fear of retaliation or intimidation — whether to be represented by a union.

Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger has expressed concerned over previous bills attempting to alter farm workers’ secret ballot voting process.  “Authorizing a union seeking to represent workers to receive and distribute election ballots from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, complete the information on the ballot envelopes, and return the workers’ ballots to the Board, unnecessarily compromises the workers’ right to privacy protected by the existing secret ballot process,” Schwarzenegger wrote in 2008 while vetoing a previous card check bill.

A year later, addressing SB 789, another Steinberg-authored card check bill, the governor wrote, “SB789 sets in place a majority sign-up election process for agricultural employees to select union representation.  This process fundamentally alters an employee’s right to a secret ballot election that allows the employee to choose, in the privacy of the voting booth without coercion or manipulation, whether or not to be represented… I cannot support this alteration of the secret ballot process.”

In fact, Schwarzenegger has vetoed all previous legislative attempts to alter the agricultural workers voting process.

Support for the bill comes from the big labor unions. The United Farm Workers sponsored the bill, and the California Labor Federation, California Nurses Association, California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, California State Employees Association, California State Employees Association Retirees, Inc. and California State University Employees Union, all signed on in support.

Opposition includes long list of growers and farm associations, together with the California Manufacturers and Technology Association, National Federation of Independent Business and the California Chamber of Commerce.

Originally calling the bill a “job killer,” the Cal Chamber said the bill is, “Designed to increase union representation of agricultural employees even when it is against the will of employees by undermining the process that now guarantees, through secret-ballot elections, a fair vote and the expression of agricultural employees’ true sentiments on the selection of a collective bargaining representation.”

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