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Published June 29, 2011, 11:43 AM

Brown vetoes bill to ease farmworker unionization

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize farmworkers in California but which growers had characterized as a union power-grab.

By: Adam Weintraub, Associated Press

SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Gov. Jerry Brown on Tuesday vetoed a bill that would have made it easier for unions to organize farmworkers in California but which growers had characterized as a union power-grab.

The bill would have allowed farmworkers to organize by signing a petition away from the fields, rather than holding a secret ballot election as they do now.

Unions say the current system leads to intimidation by employers, while farmers say a petition system would make it easier for union organizers to bully workers into joining. Growers and other business groups say greater unionization in the fields will boost food prices.

Brown signed the bill that allowed farmworkers to unionize using the secret ballot in 1975, during his first term as governor. But on Tuesday, he said he was concerned that SB104 would alter the framework of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. He issued the veto even as he acknowledged that some farmworkers are being deprived of their rights.

The Democratic governor said he appreciated the frustrations that gave rise to the bill, by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.

“But I am not yet convinced that the far-reaching proposals of this bill — which alter in a significant way the guiding assumptions of the ALRA — are justified,” the governor said in his veto message.

He called for a broader process that would discuss any necessary changes to the law, one that would include “a wide array of opinions and experiences.”

Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation four times, but officials with the United Farm Workers union said they thought the so-called card-check bill had a better chance with Brown.

UFW members, union officials and supporters demonstrated at the Capitol all day Tuesday, right up until Brown issued his veto shortly after 11 p.m.

Union leaders characterized Brown's choice as one between the powerful $36-billion-a-year agricultural industry and farmworkers, the poorest workers in the state. Workers put it in more personal terms.

“It would change a lot of things for farm workers, including (medical) insurance,” said Angelina Jimenez of Lamont, interviewed at the Capitol on Tuesday through a Spanish translator who is a UFW member.

Jimenez picks and prunes table grapes at various locations in California's Central Valley, where shade is scarce and summer temperatures often top 100 degrees. Although state rules require shade and water for workers, Jimenez said grape workers who suffer a heat-related problem in the field may be dropped at the emergency room and left on the hook for medical bills.

The UFW said the secret ballot process allows growers to intimidate workers with threats of lost work, firing of family members and even deportation.

Growers and business groups say such intimidation is rare and that there already are laws in place to punish it.

They contend the real goal of the bill is to boost union membership. UFW membership in California is down from more than 70,000 during the 1970s to about 27,000 today. The state has roughly 460,000 agricultural workers.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, which has opposed the card-check legislation over the years, declined to comment Tuesday while the governor's decision was pending.

Other opponents included the California Chamber of Commerce, which has listed the bill among its annual list of “job killers,” and groups representing manufacturers, retailers and restaurant owners. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has weighed in, calling the bill a barrier to jobs and growth.

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