SACRAMENTO, CA. — California Gov. Gavin Newsom, with a broad smile, joined two dozen jubilant, jubilant farmers who lined up outside the state Capitol on Wednesday to sign one of the most controversial bills before him this year, reversing course on aid to farm unions after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris supported him.
The White House’s support put Newsom in a difficult political position after his office announced before Democratic lawmakers sent him the bill that he would not sign it.
But Newsom approved the bill only after he, the United Farm Workers and the California Federation of Labor agreed clarifying language consider during next year’s legislative session to address his concerns about the implementation and integrity of the vote.
The new law gives California farmers, who harvest much of the nation’s fruits and vegetables, new ways to vote in union elections other than at farm polls. Supporters say it will help protect workers from union busting and other forms of intimidation, while employers say such a system lacks the necessary safeguards to prevent fraud.
The agreement would limit the number of unionization petitions for the next five years and allow state regulators to better protect the privacy and safety of workers, Newsom’s office said. It would eliminate the ability for workers to unionize through mail-in voting, which is contained in the current language, but retains the “card check” election process.
“Sí, se puede,” farmers chanted as Newsom signed the bill, echoing a longtime UFW slogan — roughly “Yes, we can” in Spanish.
The union led a weeklong summer march across the state in Sacramento, where farmworkers and their supporters rallied outside the Capitol, some standing outside until September, to rally support for Newsom.
“The vigil and the march were worth it because he came out and signed for us,” villager Teresa Maldonado said through a translator.
The march cost Suchilt Nunez her job picking fruit, several toenails and left her with blisters on her feet. But she was on the verge of tears after Newsom signed the bill, along with an extra copy for Nunes.
“California farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have a fundamental right to unionize and protect themselves in the workplace,” Newsom said in a statement after signing the bill.
Newsom vetoed similar legislation last year, as did his two most recent predecessors. One of his stated concerns centered on security concerns about mail-in elections, an option that would have been eliminated in clear language agreed to by the union.
The revised law would retain the ability to verify the card, which would still give farmers the ability to “vote from home or anywhere else they feel comfortable” and limit the chance of employer intimidation, said Gieu Kashkooli, legislative and policy director of the United Farm Workers workers. Under such a system, a trade union is created when the proxy is signed by more than half of the workers.
The California Farm Bureau said it was “deeply disappointed” by Newsom’s decision to sign the bill, although the group’s statement focused mainly on the mail-in voting system. The union did not immediately respond to an email requesting comment on the language to remove the option.
Democratic Assemblyman Mark Stone added provisions to this year’s version that would have allowed the law to expire after five years unless renewed by lawmakers and required the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to process the ballots.
Newsom has for months positioned himself as a leading national Democratic voice calling out red state governors, fueling speculation that he has presidential ambitions despite repeated denials.
Mike Madrid, a Republican strategist in California who specializes in Hispanic voting trends, read Biden’s Labor Day statement in which he strongly supported the legislation as an attempt to take Newsom down a notch.
“I think it’s inescapable that there’s a little bit of tension between these two politicians because of Gavin leaning into this presidential rumor,” Madrid said. “It’s mostly just a reminder of who the sheriff is.”
Biden has long supported the union. He keeps a bust of union co-founder Cesar Chavez in the Oval Office, and Chavez’s granddaughter, Julie Chavez Rodriguez, is Biden’s director of intergovernmental affairs.
“In a state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to free and fair choice of union organization,” Biden said in a statement.
Jack Pitney, a political science professor at Claremont McKenna College, said Biden appeared to reflect his long-standing support for unions, while Newsom had the more delicate task of balancing labor relations with the agricultural industry, which is also struggling.
Adding to the pressure, the UFW recently returned to the umbrella California Federation of Labor. The issue of farm worker unions has become more important for labor in 2020 after the US Supreme Court ruled that union organizers do not have the right to access farm property to talk to their workers.
Newsom signed another union-backed bill on Labor Day, creating a Fast Food Board with authority to set minimum standards for wages, hours and working conditions in California. A day later, the restaurant industry decided to block it.
Associated Press writer Kathleen Ronine contributed to this story.
Copyright 2022 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, copied or distributed without permission.