June 2, 2023

For 50 years, farm workers in California have held certain fundamental rights to decide for themselves, in the absence of coercion from anyone with an interest in the outcome, whether or not they wish to be represented by a union. The protection against coercion has, since the inception of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, been a secret ballot election supervised by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.   Today in California, those fundamental rights have been stripped from farm employees through a side deal between Gov. Gavin Newsom and labor unions seeking to serve their own interests.

In his Ag Alert commentary earlier this month, Bryan Little, director of employment policy for CAFB and Chief Operating Officer for Farm Bureau’s wholly owned affiliate, the Farm Employers Labor Service (FELS), described the back door deal this way:

“In late March, in a normal routine process to update the state budget to conform to a law passed in a previous legislative session, a California Assembly subcommittee approved a budget change proposal for Gov. Gavin Newsom’s 2023-24 state funding plan. This action marked a significant change in state policy on how labor relations in agriculture will be managed.

This action advanced a side deal between Newsom, the United Farm Workers and the California Labor Federation to ease the unionization of agricultural workers while eliminating requirements for secret-ballot elections for organizing.

The governor initially signaled last year that he would not sign the mail-in ballot card-check legislation, Assembly Bill 2183. But then the governor and the labor groups agreed amongst themselves to amend the bill—and he reversed course and signed it into law.”

Sadly, back-door deals and empty promises are nothing new in politics, but what is especially unconscionable in this circumstance is the undermining of basic rights and freedoms held by every other private employee of the state. In California, a farmworker no longer has the right to vote their conscience in secret, free from intimidation by a union, and many employees will be forced into a union without ever even knowing about it. Once in a union, 3% of their paycheck is gone and the employee has relinquished their right to speak and negotiate for themselves.

Where do we go from here?

While we continue to work through solutions using legislative channels, the next step forward in this battle centers on education. In recent months, Farm Employers Labor Service invested over $80,000 in radio ads to reach farm employees on the new reality of these unionization tactics. These ads sought to inform farm employees of the harsh reality that their signature on a union card entitles the union to strip them of their right to freely choose union representation (or not) at their current place of employment and any to come. No secret ballot, no protection of rights and no ability for an employer to work collectively with their employees for the betterment of all.

Moving ahead, FELS is offering grower webinars to help you better understand and address this issue on your farm. FELS continues to offer training and education in both English and Spanish on a wide variety of topics and remains your boots on the ground for all agricultural employment-related issues.

The fight to maintain fundamental individual rights is one we’ll keep fighting in California, and, as our farm employees know all too well, sometimes your opponent is the very one you thought would be fighting alongside you.

To read Bryan Little’s Ag Alert Commentary: Farm workplace tested by a side deal on unionizing, click here.

To learn more about the Farm Employers Labor Service (FELS) and it’s educational trainings and webinars, click here.