Gov. Jerry Brown has a long, significant history as an advocate of farmworkers’ rights, dating back to his early marches with Cesar Chavez in the late 1960s and culminating with the passage in May 1975 of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the only law in the country protecting farmworkers’ rights to unionize. The law would not have happened without Brown’s efforts during his first months in office, and the ALRA remains one of his most important legacies.
So the UFW was understandably cheered when Brown returned to office, and expected he would support their legislative efforts to make it easier for the struggling union to add members to its meager ranks.
But Brown knows the strength of the ALRA — often called the most pro-labor law in the country — better than almost anyone still involved in the struggle. He also knows what it takes to organize farmworkers, something the UFW seems to have lost sight of long ago. Over the past three years, he has made a series or appointments and supported efforts to strengthen the government’s role in protecting workers’ rights in the fields, but he has rejected a number of legislative moves by the union.
The latest came yesterday when Brown vetoed a little-noticed bill that could have had great ramifications in the fields. Although neither SB 25 nor the veto message refer to it, the measure was designed to help the UFW win a contract at one of the largest growers in the Central Valley, Gerawan farming. The saga of the UFW and Gerawan is a very complicated one that I will write more about soon, but this recent Fresno Bee story gives a lot of the background. Essentially, the UFW returned to the grower two decades after having won an election and demanded a contract. Under a relatively recent amendment to the ALRA, the UFW was entitled to mandatory mediation that would lead to a union contract. But a group of workers at Gerawan – where most laborers never voted for the UFW because they weren’t working there then – launched a decertification effort that led to a highly disupted election last November.
In essence, there’s a race: Decertification votes can only take place in the final year of a contract. If the contract is imposed before the votes from last year are counted, or the election is dismissed by the board because of unfair labor practices, the workers can’t move to throw the union out for some years. The dispute has spawned multiple lawsuits, charges, and hearings.
The bill that Brown vetoed would have allowed the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose a contract while appeals were still pending. “Both contract enforcement and election disputes should be dealt with so the process is balanced and fair,” Brown wrote in his veto message, noting this measure dealt only with ensuring prompt enforcement of contracts.
The stakes are large, both short and long-term. The UFW appears to have already counted the approximately 5,000 Gerawan employees as “members” on its most recent filing to the US Department of Labor – essentially doubling the union’s membership. Beyond that, the Gerawan fight poses a series of complex legal questions, and the outcome could affect not only the thousands of workers there but many more in the fields of California.