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Newsom Signs California Bill to Ease Farm Union Voting

After vetoing similar legislation last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed a bill that will make it easier for California farmworkers to take part in unionization votes.

The outcome was a major victory for labor leaders and followed calls by national Democrats, including President Biden and Speaker Nancy Pelosi, for the bill to become law.

The measure, Assembly Bill 2183, paves the way for farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections instead of needing to vote at election sites, often on growers’ property.

Officials of the United Farm Workers union, a staunch proponent of the legislation, and labor groups have argued that requiring on-premises voting allows voter suppression and retaliation. The bill faced opposition from the California Chamber of Commerce and the agricultural industry.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” Mr. Newsom said in a statement. “Our state has been defined by the heroic activism of farmworkers.”

He signed the bill after his administration and labor leaders reached a “supplemental agreement” on provisions that will be introduced in the next legislative session and include, among other things, protections of farmworker confidentiality and safety.

Mr. Newsom cited procedural issues in vetoing the measure that the Legislature sent him last year, and he had hinted that he might do the same with this bill.

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Just before Labor Day, Mr. Biden voiced his support for the legislation, saying in a statement that “farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic.”

“In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union,” Mr. Biden said.

Vice President Kamala Harris and Ms. Pelosi, leading Democrats with roots in California, also offered statements supporting the measure.

In recent months, as the measure made its way through the Legislature, a coalition of growers in the state, including the Western Growers Association and the Agricultural Council of California, sent a letter to lawmakers outlining their opposition. They argued that the measure “implicitly condones the coercion and intimidation of farm employees” and would allow unions to pressure support.

“This bill eliminates a farmworker’s right to a secret ballot election that is free from coercion from any party that has a financial interest in the outcome of the election,” they wrote.

In California, when a sufficient tally of farmworkers submit a petition to the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board calling for a union election, the board eventually schedules an election at a polling site usually near the ranch.

The push to change the rules on unionization voting followed years of dwindling union membership among California farmworkers.

There are more than 400,000 agricultural workers in the state, and researchers at the University of California, Merced, and the nonprofit newsroom CalMatters, based on a 2020 Bureau of Labor Statistics national employment survey, calculated that the percentage of the state’s farmworkers belonging to a union was statistically zero.

Last year, in a blow to unions, the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that a California regulation allowing organizers to recruit farmworkers at their workplaces violated the constitutional rights of their employers.

Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher, chief officer of the California Labor Federation, which urged Mr. Newsom to sign the bill, said it was a victory for farmworkers all across the state.

“In this historic time when workers want a union more than ever before, everything we do — including legislatively — must be focused on organizing,” she said. “It’s natural that in California, our farmworkers will be leading the way.”

In August, dozens of farmworkers marched more than 330 miles through the Central Valley to Sacramento to push for Mr. Newsom to sign the bill. The march was symbolic and mirrored a 1966 trek spearheaded by the United Farm Workers leader Cesar Chavez, who demanded a meeting with Gov. Edmund G. Brown to address farmworker conditions.

Since the latest march, U.F.W. members, along with other farmworkers supporting the bill, have held rallies in many California cities.

One morning this month, Amalia Rodriguez, 30, joined a dozen supporters of Assembly Bill 2183 outside a state building in downtown Los Angeles.

Ms. Rodriguez began working in strawberry fields in Oxnard, an agricultural community 60 miles northwest of Los Angeles, when she was a teenager. She said she had seen growers intimidate farmworkers, many of whom are undocumented.

“They tell us to be grateful for what we make and not be greedy,” she said.

“We are treated like we are nothing,” Ms. Rodriguez added, as fellow protesters shouted the union’s motto, “Sí, se puede” (“Yes, we can”), as passing cars honked in support.

“We work hard and are just told to be quiet,” she said.  

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