California's agricultural laborers work hard and lead difficult lives. Wages are low, making it nearly impossible to save enough money to secure better lives for their children. Work is seasonal, leaving long gaps in pay. Affordable housing is scarce. Laborers whose work is badly needed by growers and consumers often come to the U.S. in violation of immigration laws, making them subject to employer exploitation. For years, workers have helped tilt the balance of power in fields and factory farms incrementally by organizing themselves into labor unions. The Times supports steps to make it easier for them to join forces and demand humane conditions and negotiate for reasonable pay.
The problem, though, with the "card check" bills that Democrats keep sending to the governor is that they empower unions, not union workers. There is a difference.
Since 1975, workers have been able to choose whether to organize, and with which union, by casting ballots in secret. SB 104, like earlier versions of the bill, would replace those secret-ballot elections with a method known as majority signup or "card check." That would allow union representatives to visit workers in their homes to ask for their signatures, a process that could easily lead to inappropriate pressure or threats. Rather than empowering workers by leaving to them the decision of whether to organize — and with what union — it would empower the labor organization itself before the workers had even chosen it. With all due respect to the United Farm Workers, which is the bill's chief backer and the union most likely to benefit, the rights that need protecting are not the union's but the workers'.
SB 104 is currently on the desk of Gov. Jerry Brown, who more than 30 years ago signed the bill protecting the rights of workers to make these decisions in the privacy of voting booths. Secrecy was deemed essential at that time to defeat the overbearing tactics of the UFW's rival, the Teamsters union, as well as of management.
Now that the UFW no longer has any real union rivals, it is backing SB 104, which it expects will make it easier to organize workers. Dozens of public officials and activists are seeking Brown's signature to end secret balloting by staging a rolling one-day-at-a-time hunger strike, in homage to UFW leader Cesar Chavez's famous 25-day hunger strike in 1968 to defend fieldworkers' rights. But Brown would be more in keeping with Chavez's legacy if he vetoes the bill, even if that would mean a short-term setback for the UFW's organizing efforts.
On Tuesday, the National Labor Relations Board proposed new rules that could prevent employers from misusing the secret-ballot process, as many have in the past, to slow down union certification and thwart workers' attempts to organize. It's a welcome step forward for the board, which for too long has tilted too far away from workers' rights and toward management. The board, rather than the California Legislature, is currently showing the way forward on securing the right of workers to organize.