Card Check Blazing Through Assembly

APRIL 7, 2011


With a sucker punch from the Assembly Speaker’s office, the public notice rule for legislative hearings was suspended on Wednesday. That allowed an Assembly committee to push through a quick hearing about Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg’s card check bill.

Steinberg, a Democrat from Sacramento, was not present to discuss the bill, instead sending representative Charles Wright again in his place. “SB 104 does not eliminate the secret ballot — it just adds the new option to the secret ballot process,” Wright said.

But opponents again challenged that claim, including a representative from the California Farm Bureau who asked Wright why the union would choose to hold a secret ballot election when no election needs to take place if more than 50 percent of the cards are signed by farm workers before an election. He said that proponents of SB 104 have acknowledged that receiving 51 percent of the cards signed are enough to forgo a secret ballot election.

He also asked Wright why the Legislature’s Rule 62, requiring a four-day notice for hearings, was waived and the hearing held without public notice. Wright declined to answer.

The cards can be signed up to one year in advance before ever being used. The bill’s language reads, “A representation card remains valid for 12 months after it is signed by an agricultural employee.”

Third Attempt

In the third attempt to pass a card check bill allowing farm and agriculture workers to unionize without holding a secret ballot election, SB 104 was passed by the Senate last week and is now making its way though the Assembly.

Wednesday’s hearing in the Labor and Employment committee was a surprise to many, as it was not given the usual public notification according to Rule 62. The rules also say that the Speaker of the Assembly can suspend a rule.

Testimony in favor of the card check bill was provided by a woman who, speaking through an interpreter, said she is a single mother and has worked for Grimmway Farms for the last 17 years, making only minimum wage. “Grimmway intimidates us — they know they can get away with it,” she said, recounting an injury to her eye in 1995. She said she was not allowed to get treatment after the accident, and told to go back to work. She said she was afraid she would lose her job.

“Conditions at Grimmway have gotten worse in 15 years. We have tried several times to form a union, but Grimmway intimidates us,” she said.  But a judge threw out the results of a 2006 union election, she said. “We need fair treatment for farm workers.”

Sarah Flocks, a representative with the California Labor Federation, offered support for the bill and spoke about witnessing the deplorable conditions farm employees must endure. “I am also a former UFW staffer and have seen first hand the intimidation of workers.”

Union Intimidation

Opposition for the bill came from food growers’ associations including the California Grape and Tree Fruit League. Barry Bedwell, the league’s president, has testified before about the bill. This time he shared the same argument, “The characterization of this bill as an alternative to the secret ballot is an illusion.” He said the bill unfairly imposes hefty penalties against employers for potential intimidation. Bedwell also said that there is a need for balance regarding unfair labor practices and both sides should receive penalties if found guilty.

Bedwell told the committee that fear of intimidation doesn’t just come from employers, but also from unions. He asked that, if legislators were really interested in addressing intimidation, “Why isn’t current law addressing intimidation, instead of taking away the right of the secret ballot?”

After the last hearing, Bedwell said that his association was concerned that passage of the bill would be “a wholesale license for union intimidation.” This hearing Bedwell said the bill does not provide balance but instead gives total preference to unions. “Secret ballot and privacy is the only way to protect farm workers without being harassed by anybody.”

Additional opposition came from a man who said he had worked as a farm worker in the 1970s and had been fortunate enough to rise through the work ranks over the years. He said he knew Cesar Chavez and that Chavez supported the secret ballot back in the 1970’s — as did Jerry Brown, who was governor at the time. “There is already a way to deal with intimidation. I oppose on behalf of Mr. Chavez,” he said.

Strange Commentary

The strangest commentary of the hearing came from Assemblywoman Mariko Yamada, D-Davis, when she described seeing a lone worker on a road selling produce. “He had no shade, no place to sit — someone had just dropped him off on the side of the road and left him, as weekend warriors drove by on a country road,” Yamada said. “It is modern day indentured servitude.”

“If there is nothing to fear, why the opposition?” Yamada asked the committee. “I would think that he [Chavez] would promote these options.”

Opposition to SB 104 came from the Agricultural Council of California, the Wine Institute, the California Independent Grocers Association, the California Chamber of Commerce, the California Hotel and Lodging Association and the National Right to Work Committee.

Committee analysis states that opponents believe that majority choice elections are not real elections, are fundamentally undemocratic, open workers up to intimidation from unions in their homes and deprive farm workers of a proper debate regarding the pros and cons of union representation.  Opponents also state that the provisions for increased civil penalties are excessive, possibly unconstitutional and an undue burden on business.

Proponents state that many farm workers work in isolated areas, making inspections for labor regulations difficult.  Proponents argue that these conditions present a strong need for collective bargaining and a union presence, but this has been blocked by employers through coercion, anti-union pamphlets, and captive audience meetings that prevent fair elections from taking place.

The bill was voted on and passed, 5 to 1, and is headed to the next Assembly committee.

Tags assigned to this article:
unionscard checkKaty Grimesregulations

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