There has been a fair amount of post-mortem analysis of the
Governor’s decision to veto legislation that would have given the United Farm
Workers (UFW) the power to eliminate secret ballots for farmworkers voting on
whether to unionize.
State and national newspaper editorials and commentary have
rightly concluded that Governor Brown realized the measure would have blown up
the very labor reforms he constructed in 1975. Furthermore, it went too far in
allowing unions to intimidate and bully workers.
The central issue is basic democracy. Over the years, both Cesar Chavez and Gov.
Brown have underscored that there is nothing more sacred than the right to vote
privately and free from threats.
But these commentaries, while accurate, too often pitted the
California card check legislation as a David-and-Goliath battle between huge
agricultural interests and a union.
This is an unfair portrayal in a
number of respects, and needs clarity.
The fact is that 99.2% of all
businesses in the Golden State – including those in agriculture – are small
The card-check legislation would have harmed a wide spectrum of
small family farmers, organic growers, ranchers, dairymen, grain operators and
feed stores – and, by definition, all of their employees. It would have
allowed union managers to approach employees at home, at the store, at a
ballgame…anywhere. And there was no right to privacy whatsoever in the worker’s
The governor rightly understood that the most important thing to
a farmworker is the right to have a safe, healthy, clean and workable
environment, free from the threat of intimidation and harassment, and the
opportunity to grow and succeed in his or her role. Card check posed a threat
to the very livelihood of the farmworkers themselves.
Also lost in the debate was the fact many farmers are the sons
and daughters of immigrants. Through hard work, ambition and entrepreneurial
spirit this new generation of farmers have been able to achieve the American
Dream by farming their own land successfully.
Additionally, the UFW would have the public (and Governor)
believing that labor relations remain stuck in the Dust Bowl era. Yet nothing
could be further from the truth. The labor reforms Governor Brown instituted in
his first term of office in the 1970’s paved the way for more than four decades
of improvements for field hands and working conditions.
Many workers have risen to middle management positions. It is
not uncommon for farm operations to retain workers year round, providing health
and retirement benefits. Food safety, pesticide, heat stress and other
regulations have by definition improved the workplace.
The simple fact is that for a union to be relevant, it must add
value to workers in the workplace. The UFW is a small and struggling union not
because of "Big Ag" but because workers see little benefit in return for their
The UFW should have realized that nearly 2.2 million
Californians are out of work. Small businesses and farms are closing their
doors left and right. The last thing California needs is a political power play
to undermine the right of farmworkers to think for themselves and give small
businesses one more reason to close their doors and layoff workers.
California workplaces are among the
most heavily regulated of any state in the nation. Ample safeguards and avenues
for recourse exist to protect workers and employers. Governor Brown deserves
credit for recognizing that a draconian approach to agricultural labor
relations would only harm small businesses and the workers themselves.