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Bill would alter farm union voting practices

Curtailing secret ballots would make union organizing easier, Mahony, others argue.

April 19, 2007|Robert Salladay | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — More than three decades after the state's landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, a bill in the Legislature could dramatically alter how farm labor unions secure contracts in California.

The newly introduced legislation could curtail the use of secret ballots when farmworkers vote on union representation.

The legislation comes after the once-powerful United Farm Workers union, which is sponsoring the legislation, has faced embarrassing losses among California farmworkers voting on union representation. In several cases, farmworkers in great numbers have signed authorization cards calling for a union election, but then failed to support UFW representation in the actual election.

The twist is that founder Cesar E. Chavez fought tenaciously for the secret ballots in the 1975 labor law.

On Wednesday, Cardinal Roger M. Mahony of Los Angeles traveled to Sacramento to meet with about 300 farmworkers in the basement of the Cathedral of the Blessed Sacrament and urged them to support the change in how union representation is decided.

The UFW says that workers face intimidation by growers before entering the voting booth, but the agriculture industry relays another argument: Workers may be seduced by the UFW into authorizing an election, but they will express their true feelings in the voting booth.

The new legislation would give workers the option of signing a form supporting union representation -- effectively, a vote to unionize without a formal election -- or another card that would call for a secret ballot on the issue.

California's $32-billion agriculture business says the change is undemocratic and could lead to the UFW itself intimidating workers to sign the union authorization cards and avoid a secret ballot. Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, called the legislation "unconscionable and almost unbelievable."

The majority of California farmworkers are thought to be illegal immigrants, said Arturo S. Rodriguez, president of the UFW, and "there is tremendous pressure put on the workers. People are always being threatened with being reported to the INS ... "

"There are just a lot of subtle things that can create a fear factor," Mahony said in an interview later.

The bill, SB 180, which also would increase the penalties on growers for unfair labor practices, would allow labor groups such as the UFW to fill out the entire authorization card for the farmworker, except for the final signature. The card includes the name of the union and grower, as well as a statement that no threats were made to obtain a signature on the card.

The legislation comes as the UFW's power has declined since Chavez's death in 1993. Although it represents workers with about 50 separate contracts, it has lost high-profile elections on farms. Most recently, at VBZ Grapes last September, the union lost by almost 2 to 1 -- 793 votes against a union, 425 for the UFW.

But Bedwell, with the Grape and Tree Fruit League, said farmworkers face pressure from the UFW and other labor organizers when presented with the cards. Workers, he said, "may not want to anger the person soliciting them or they may simply want the union representative to leave them alone."

Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger has not taken a position on the legislation, which is awaiting its first vote in the state Senate.

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