César Chávez Backed Secret Union Votes


MAY 23, 2011


In my misguided and misspent youth I was a liberal idealist who supported the United Farm Workers union in its struggle for better wages and working conditions for the poor folks doing the backbreaking labor needed to put food on our tables.

I organized a boycott of non-UFW lettuce at Penn State, which went nowhere, having persuaded perhaps a handful of students to skip their salad for a day or two. On a summer break, a friend and I took a Greyhound bus to California where we spent a few days working on construction of Agbayani Village for retired Filipino farm workers in Delano (probably doing more harm than good as we wildly pounded nails) and joined the picket line where we serenaded field workers with an off-key version of “De Colores.”

Like many, I was inspired by the image of a self-sacrificing, non-violent César Chávez, the Latino Martin Luther King. It also made me feel good to champion the cause of such downtrodden workers.

In 1976, Chávez placed Proposition 14 on the California ballot. Its goal was to ensure that farm workers would have secret ballots when deciding whether they wanted to be represented by a union. A UFW flier explained why it’s so important for farm workers to be allowed to vote in secrecy:

For eleven heartbreaking years farm workers in California have been struggling for the right to a decent life for themselves and their children. And the right to vote in secret elections for a union of their choice. Last year, at last, a law was passed and a Farm Labor Board created to see that the elections were honest. Farm workers rushed to vote.

But the big corporate growers didn’t like the results of the elections, so they put pressure on a small group of state legislators and cut off funds for the Board. The result: no more elections. No more law and justice in the fields. An invitation to the growers to go back to child labor, spraying pesticides on workers, beating up farm worker organizers.

That’s why Proposition 14 is so important. The people themselves can now guarantee the right of farm workers to vote in secret elections — a right that can’t be taken away by lobbying pressures by corporate growers.

Gov. Brown Backed Secret Ballot

Prop. 14 was backed by religious leaders, unions and Democratic politicians, including Gov. Jerry Brown, who had worked with Chávez to enact the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, which Prop. 14 was seeking to fund and strengthen.

In his endorsement, Brown wrote, “I will vote yes on 14 because it is right. Because it saves taxpayers money and it will bring peace and the rule of law to the fields of California. Because it will serve farmers, farm workers and all the people of California.”

It turned out that Prop. 14 was defeated 2-1 after a strong opposition campaign was waged by growers. But funding was later restored to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections. And much legislation has been passed in the last 35 years to ensure that wages and working conditions in the fields have improved considerably.
Ironically, that has resulted in a decreased interest among farm workers in belonging to a union. The UFW’s membership, once more than 70,000 in the 1970s, has dwindled to about 5,000.

Card Check Bill

As a result, and even more ironically, the UFW sponsored SB 104, by Senate President Pro Tem Darryl Steinberg, D-Sacramento. This “card check” bill would result in farm workers losing the right to secret balloting on whether to unionize. This will likely lead to an increase in UFW membership through intimidation and coercion of farm workers who simply want to be left alone to put in a day’s work and not have a percentage of their wage siphoned off for union dues.

So the union that once argued in favor of having secret union elections for farm workers that can’t be taken away by lobbying pressure is now using lobbying pressure to take away secret elections. Befuddled farm workers must be singing The Who’s refrain: “Meet the new boss / Same as the old boss.”

The bill easily passed the legislature due to overwhelming Democratic support and awaits a signature from the same Gov. Brown who worked with Chávez to keep farm worker balloting secret. Chávez died in 1993, and must be spinning in his grave at what’s become of his union. If Brown signs the bill, it will be one more act of exploitation against farm workers who have already suffered enough.

Several Republican Assembly members pointed out last week that increased unionization would lead to higher costs for growers. That could result in marginal farmers going out of business and more successful ones investing in increased mechanization, which would put farm workers out of work. It would also lead to higher food costs, which hurts the poorest the most.

Tim Donnelly, R-Twin Peaks, who is one of the rising GOP stars in the Capitol, made the most persuasive case against AB 104, pointing out that many farm workers are exploited illegal aliens:

I rise in opposition even though I support the cause of farm workers in the field. Right now we tolerate a system where people are abused, exploited, sold into indentured servitude and slavery. All that this bill will do is codify that exploitation and abuse, because it won’t do anything to change their status.

Right now the vast majority of those who work in our fields are here illegally. They live as second class citizens. When they can’t afford to pay the coyote, they are owned. They are virtual human slaves. This bill does nothing to address that abuse. This bill will encourage violence and intimidation as each farm worker is approached by a union rep and told they must sign a card. This is not going to protect them. This will force them into a union that will then represent itself as every union has over time.

It is a travesty that in the year 2011 to have my colleagues [sponsor this bill] instead of coming up with a solution to protect folks who have been abused for so many years. Those people who are picking the crops to feed our families, we owe it to them to come up with a guest worker program where we can serve the interest of the companies so they have a stable work force and protect the taxpayers and safeguard the workers who will then come under the protection of all of the California laws.

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