California farm worker union marching to the French Laundry after Newsom vetoes labor bill

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday vetoed a bill that would have allowed farm workers to vote by mail in union elections, a change the United Farm Workers pressed for after the U.S. Supreme Court earlier this year dealt a setback to its organizing practices.

Assembly Bill 616 would have allowed agricultural workers to select their collective bargaining representative through a ballot card election by voting at a physical location or mail or dropping off a ballot to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board office.

The UFW, which supported Newsom over the past several months has fought the campaign to recall him from office, had been a planning a 260-mile march this week from Tulare County to Sacramento to advocate for the bill. The march commemorates the 1968 march labor icon Cesar Chavez carried to highlight the plight of farm workers at that time.

Instead, UFW issued a statement over Twitter saying it would redirect the march to the French Laundry restaurant in Napa County, a reference to the pricey meal Newsom had with lobbyists as he asked other Californians to avoid mixed groups and indoor settings during the coronavirus pandemic.

"Workers are now marching towards the French Laundry, hoping to finally meet with the Governor," the message read.

In a veto message, Newsom said the bill contained "various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards."

"Significant changes to California's well-defined agricultural labor laws must be carefully crafted to ensure that both agricultural workers' intent to be represented and the right to collectively bargain is protected, and the state can faithfully enforce those fundamental rights," he said.

He wrote that he would direct his administration's labor agency to "work collaboratively with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and all relevant stakeholders to develop new policies for legislative consideration to address this issue."

The Supreme Court in June handed down a decision that set back UFW's organizing efforts by striking down a 50-year-old California law that had allowed its representatives to enter farms during nonworking hours, finding it infringed on farmers' property rights.

California Farm Bureau President Jamie Johansson applauded Newsom's decision to veto the bill.

"The California Farm Bureau is proud of our farmers, ranchers and farm workers who stood up and spoke out against AB 616 and the threat it represented for the rights of agricultural employees to be free of undue fear and intimidation," Johansson said. "The firm action taken today by Gov. Newsom in vetoing 616 protects the sanctity of the secret ballot election. It means that strong-arm organizing tactics and coercion have no place in California agriculture."

The proposed bill also drew opposition from Senate Republican Leader Scott Wilk who sent Newsom a letter on Sept. 9 urging him to not pass the legislation, arguing that it would violate farmworkers' right to "vote in secret."

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the labor union, criticized Newsom's decision and likened the bill to popular vote-by-mail laws favored by California Democrats.

"Why shouldn't farmworkers have the same rights when voting in union elections?" she said. "A week ago, voters used many options to save Gov. Newsom from a recall effort. Today, the governor revealed who he is by vetoing AB 616. Farm workers will show him who we are. We're heading to the French Laundry, hoping to finally get that meeting we've so far been denied."

Assemblyman Mark Stone, the bill's author, in a statement, expressed disappointment in Newsom not signing the legislation.

"I hope that the Governor will be open to addressing the concerns that he cited," he said.

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