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Union bill draws fire from farm groups

By   /   Thursday, August 21st, 2008  /   Comments Off on Union bill draws fire from farm groups

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A bill that would make it easier for unions to organize farmworkers has triggered sharp opposition from tri-county agriculture groups.

Under the current system, workers vote in an election with secret ballots to determine whether they want representation and which union they want. The proposed legislation, Assembly Bill 2683, replaces that vote with a “mediated election.”

In that process, workers would be given a ballot to fill out at home or elsewhere and return in a sealed envelope. They would decide whether to accept union representation right then or hold a traditional election with ballot booths to decide the issue.

“We think that’s ripe for fraud and intimidation because unions can go to someone’s home and intimidate or browbeat someone into signing these cards,” said Richard Quandt, president of the Grower-Shipper Vegetable Association of Santa Barbara and San Luis Obispo Counties. The association has joined 23 other agriculture groups from around the state in opposition to the bill.

State Sen. Tom McClintock, R-Thousand Oaks, opposed the bill on the Senate floor. In an interview with the Business Times, he said it “denies farmworkers the right to a secret ballot – the right to cast a vote in the privacy of a voting booth, free from coercion, intimidation or recrimination.”

The bill passed the Senate and must be sent back to the Assembly, which passed a significantly different version, before heading to Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, who has taken no position on it.

But the bill’s proponents argue that under the current system, employers coerce workers on the job in ways that are hard to detect, said Vicki Adame, a spokeswoman for United Farm Workers.

Investigations over election violations can take years, she said, far too long to do any good for hourly wage workers.

“This is basically an absentee-ballot system,” Adame said of the measure. “[Workers] can take it home, look it over, think about it and mark it. When you register to vote you have that option. There’s nothing that says you have to go to a polling place.”

Adame rejected opponents’ arguments that unions could track down workers and unduly influence their votes.

“If someone goes to your home and you don’t want to hear what they have to say, you say no-thank-you and that’s it,” Adame said. “We’re not trying to take anyone’s rights away.”

The bill includes several provisions employers find troubling.

Under it, a union would file a petition to prompt a “mediated election.” Unlike the current law, the petition wouldn’t have to assert that workers want to unionize. Employers say that allows labor groups to start organizing the process without a demonstrated interest from workers.

After the petition is filed, the employer would have to give the union a list of workers and their home addresses. The union would then distribute the ballots and return them to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Only the worker is allowed to sign and place the ballot in an envelope and then seal and sign that envelope. However, the bill contains no provision prohibiting the union from filling out the ballot.

Employers say such practices would be unacceptable in political races and thus should be banned in workplace elections. “Do you want someone from the Democratic or Republican party to fill out a ballot for you and have you sign the envelope?” Quandt said.

Moreover, “there’s no option on the ballot for ‘no union,’” said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association, which has joined a coalition opposing the bill.
Employers allege that the real motivation behind the bill is an attempt by unions to revitalize their membership rosters, which have steadily dwindled in recent decades.

“The union has lost more elections than they have won in recent years, and they can’t make a dent in the industry any more,” Roy said. “They just want to take the easy road.”

But union officials say the bill aims to make it easier for workers to learn about and express their right to organize. “We’re giving them information so they can make their decision,” Adame said.

The newest bill is a direct follow-up to last year’s “card-check” legislation.

That measure would have organized workers if a union collected signatures from more than 50 percent of them in a workplace. Schwarzenegger vetoed that bill.

Although AB2683 affects only farm workers in California, its fate could have ramifications far beyond the state. Similar “card-check” legislation that would cover workers in all industries has come before the U.S. Congress.

“The national groups would like to see this passed in California first, which would give them more momentum in Washington,” Quandt said.

The federal version has drawn criticism from longtime union supporters.

Writing for the opinion page of the Wall Street Journal, former U.S. senator and Democratic presidential candidate George McGovern called the bill a “disturbing and undemocratic overreach not in the interest of either management or labor.

“We cannot be a party that strips working Americans of the right to a secret-ballot election,” McGovern wrote.

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