Bill Would Ease Unionization Of California Farmworkers

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California Aqueduct in the San Joaquin Valley. (AP)

California Aqueduct in the San Joaquin Valley. (AP)

SACRAMENTO (CBS / AP) — California lawmakers moved ahead Thursday with a bill that would make it easier for farmworkers to unionize, acting over the objections of Republicans and the business community.

The bill would let field laborers organize by submitting a petition to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board instead of holding a secret-ballot election. They also would have to submit cards signed by a majority of the farm’s employees. The board would certify the union once it checks that the voting cards are legitimate.

The bill passed the Senate on a party-line 24-14 vote and now goes to the Assembly, which is also controlled by Democrats.

Its passage would mark a victory for labor unions during a year in which their influence is being eroded in statehouses around the country.

Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed similar bills four times. United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement that the bill has a better chance under Gov. Jerry Brown, a Democrat. Brown spokesman Evan Westrup said the governor has taken no position on the pending legislation.

Senate Democrats said the current method of holding an election to unionize gives employers an opportunity to intimidate farmworkers before the vote.

Republican lawmakers said the pending bill could let union organizers pressure farmworkers into signing the cards saying that they want union representation. The bill is opposed by the California Chamber of Commerce, California Farm Bureau Federation, and organizations representing manufacturers, retailers and restaurant owners.

The Senate took up the measure on a state holiday honoring United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.

In a proclamation celebrating the anniversary of Chavez’s birth 84 years ago, Brown noted that he signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 during his first two terms as governor. The law was the nation’s first to let farmworkers form unions and collectively bargain, Brown recalled, without mentioning the proposed change.

About 400,000 farmworkers labor annually in California’s fields and orchards, and 27,000 now work under United Farm Worker contracts at least one day a year, said union spokeswoman Maria Machuca. She could not immediately say how that compares with the rest of the nation.

(Copyright 2011 by CBS San Francisco. All Rights Reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed. Wire services may have contributed to this report.)

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