During his first term as governor, 36 years ago, Jerry Brown became a hero of the farmworker movement when he signed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The law brought peace to the fields and provided an avenue for farmworkers to bargain collectively. Tens of thousands have done so in the intervening years.
This week, an older Jerry Brown vetoed Senate Bill 104, a pro-farmworker measure sponsored by United Farm Workers of America and authored by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.
As Brown said in his veto message, provisions in the bill "alter in a significant way the guiding assumptions of the ALRA." Had it become law, the bill would have allowed a card-check system, rendering secret ballot elections a thing of the past. Card check allows union organizers to declare victory if they collect cards from a majority of workers who say they want to join a union.
The United Farm Workers union says the current law isn't working because farmers intimidate workers in ways that harm union organizing.
They point to the Giumarra case involving one of the largest grape growers in the San Joaquin Valley. In 2006, the ALRB determined that Giumarra engaged in unfair labor practices by threatening workers with loss of their jobs and financial ruin if they voted to join a union. But for those threats, investigators determined, the union would have won the election.
Under the law, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board only has authority to set aside the election; that merely cements the nonunion status quo.
"Obviously this allows the wrongdoers to profit for their misconduct," a clearly frustrated ALRB concluded in its Giumarra decision.
To make the law effective in cases of employer misconduct, the ALRB needs authority to declare the union the victor. A Steinberg bill, which would have given the board that authority, was vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger last year. Rather than reintroduce that sensible measure, Steinberg authored a card-check bill, which could tilt the rules too far in favor of unions.
Steinberg should reintroduce last year's measure. Brown is likely to sign it.
But another state law by itself will not do much to improve conditions for farmworkers. This group of laborers is vulnerable to exploitation because a large percentage of them are in this country illegally. Workers cannot stand up for their rights or freely join a union when they face the constant threat of deportation.
This editorial board has stood up for farmworkers in their efforts to get paid overtime and avoid heat-related illnesses and exposure to pesticides. But card check is the wrong way to ensure that farmworkers wanting representation actually get it. To advance fairness in the fields, the nation needs a fair system of immigration, one that protects workers and farmers alike.