'Why Can't We Have the Same Rights?': Farmworkers Ask Newsom to Sign Bill Allowing Union Voting by Mail

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Smiling demonstrators, one wearing a straw fedora and colorful beaded necklace and the other a striped, multicolored facemask, hold signs reading 'I'm ready to march for the governor's signature.'
Louie Gutierrez (left) and Roberto Hernandez rally in support of United Farm Workers on César Chávez Street in San Francisco on March 31, 2022, during a César Chávez Day demonstration calling on Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would give farmworkers the option to vote by mail in union elections. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

On Thursday — César Chávez Day — a group of about 50 farmworkers, advocates and community members gathered in Fresno to march in honor of the late labor leader and to once again ask Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would make it easier for farmworkers to vote in union elections.

“Farmworkers are asking what could be more important than meeting with farmworkers on César Chávez Day,” said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the United Farm Workers, in a recent interview with The Bee. On Wednesday, Newsom’s office confirmed that he and his family were on vacation in Central and South America.

The march was part of a series of events organized by the UFW and its foundation in 13 rural and urban California cities — including San Francisco, San Jose and Berkeley — in which farmworkers gathered to raise awareness about the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, AB 2183, a bill that would give farmworkers the option to vote by mail in union elections.

Among those marching in Fresno on Thursday were San Joaquin Valley elected officials: Santos Garcia, the mayor of Madera; and Jose Sigala, a councilmember from Tulare currently running for state Assembly for the 33rd District.

“I’m here to lend support to this legislation,” said Sigala. “Hopefully, the governor sees not only this action but the action across the state.”

A man and a woman in focus amid other demonstrators, slightly blurred, wear red facemasks reading 'Cesar Chavez' in black with the black UFW phoenix symbol, and hold signs black-and-white signs reading 'Support Farm Workers: I'm ready to march for the governor's signature.'
Augustin and Elvia Ramirez listen to speakers on Cesar Chavez Street in San Francisco on March 31, 2022, during a demonstration in support of a bill to allow farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

The coordinated marches took place less than a year after the UFW organized a march to the French Laundry — 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 — after Newsom vetoed an initial version of the bill, AB 616, last September.

Labor leaders, Assemblymembers and farmworkers say they are hopeful that the governor will sign the legislation into law this year.

“I hope it passes,” said Anthony Arano, a Fresno-area resident who came out to support the march. “Latinos need to be heard. We’re part of this country, too.”

Legislators 'hopeful' governor will sign bill

Last year, Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Democrat from Santa Cruz, authored AB 616, a bill that would allow California farmworkers to vote for a union by mail instead of in-person secret ballot elections conducted on a grower’s property.

Farmworker advocates said farmworkers feel intimidated during union elections, which, under the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, currently take place directly on growers’ property.

The bill is “pretty straightforward,” said Strater. “It’s to extend to farmworkers a more modernized, flexible choice when it comes to how they vote under union elections.”

Currently other nonagricultural unions covered by the National Labor Relations Act — the federal labor law that excludes farmworkers and domestic workers — already have alternative voting options during a union election.


Agriculture grower associations opposed the bill, and the California Chamber of Commerce included the legislation on its “job killer” list.

Union officials said they had been trying to meet with Newsom for months to discuss the bill prior to his veto and called the veto hypocritical since the governor was able to avoid recall in part due to the vote-by-mail option during the pandemic.

“He asked for votes by mail. That’s why he’s still in office,” said Lourdes Cardenas, a farmworker and union member from Fresno during Thursday’s march. “Why can’t we have the same rights?”

Legislators are confident that the bill will be signed this time around and have garnered even more support for the proposed legislation.

“This is something that the Legislature finds very important. We have a lot of co-authors. We’ve generated a lot of interest among legislators,” said Stone in an interview with The Bee on Tuesday.

Chesa Boudin, a white man with a trim beard and trim haircut with a receding hairline, wears a dark suit, light blue shirt, and blue tie, with a star-shaped lapel pin, and smiles slightly as he holds a sign reading 'Support Farm Workers: I'm ready to march for the governor's signature.' He walks alongside a man wearing a bright orange vest, a ball cap, and sunglasses who is also smiling. Many people around the two are smiling (and others are masked), and a man behind Boudin holds up a cellphone horizontally, as if he might be filming or photographing the DA.
San Francisco District Attorney Chesa Boudin (wearing tie) joins a demonstration in support of a bill to allow farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections on César Chávez Day on March 31, 2022. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Fifty legislators have co-signed this year’s version of the voting rights bill.

“I’m very hopeful that what we put on the governor’s desk this year, he’ll sign,” Stone said.

The proposed legislation would allow farmworkers to vote either in an all-mail election or a more traditional polling-place type of election.

Stone’s office and the UFW, who are co-sponsors of the bill, say they have been working with Newsom’s office on the suggested changes he detailed in his veto letter.

Will the bill spur renewed UFW organizing?

While Strater said she hopes that the legislation will spur more union election activity, critics of the union aren’t as confident.

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William Gould, an outspoken critic of the union who has served on state and federal labor relations boards, told The Bee in January that nobody is organizing the farmworkers.

“Even if this bill is reintroduced, I doubt that that’s going to change appreciably,” he said.

Last year, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board received only one request for union representation, from a cannabis farm in Southern California.

But Strater said that “with organizing work, there are no shortcuts.”

AB 2183 will “certainly empower” workers to come together, form committees, and organize themselves, said Strater, and it will “level the playing field between the workers and their employers.”

If passed, Strater said, the new bill will show farmworkers that the “final hurdle” of a union election vote “is not going to be so impossibly high.”

Melissa Montalvo is a reporter with The Fresno Bee and a Report for America corps member. This article is part of The California Divide, a collaboration among newsrooms examining income inequity and economic survival in California.