Farmworkers' 24-Day March Culminates in Sacramento, Pressuring Newsom to Sign Union Bill

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line of marchers carrying union flags and a mexican flag walk down a rural 2-lane highway in the hot sun
Farmworkers and their supporters march through Walnut Grove on Day 22 of their 24-day 'March for the Governor's Signature' on Wednesday, to persuade Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign Assembly Bill 2183, the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. The march started in Delano and concluded 350 miles away in Sacramento on Friday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Update, 6 p.m. Friday: A broadly smiling California Gov. Gavin Newsom joined about two dozen jubilant, cheering farmworkers camped outside the state Capitol on Wednesday, September 28, to sign a measure aimed at helping farmworkers unionize.

Newsom initially announced his intention to veto the bill — one of the most contentious bills before the governor this year — but reversed course after President Joe Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris publicly backed it, pinning him in a difficult political position.

Newsom, however, approved the bill only after he, the United Farm Workers and the California Labor Federation agreed on clarifying language to be considered during next year’s legislative session to address his concerns around implementation and voting integrity.

The new law gives California farmworkers, who harvest much of the nation’s fruit and vegetables, new ways to vote in union elections beyond physical polling places on farm property. Proponents say that will help protect workers from union busting and other intimidation, while many farm owners say such a system lacks necessary safeguards to prevent fraud.

The agreement includes a cap on the number of unionization petitions over the next five years and will allow state regulators to better protect worker confidentiality and safety, Newsom's office said. It drops the option for workers to unionize through mail-in voting — as the UFW had pushed for — but allows for a “card check” election process, offering farmworkers a chance to vote from home in an effort to limit the chances of employer intimidation.

Original post, August 26: Thousands of farmworkers and their allies finished a march to California’s Capitol in Sacramento on Friday, completing the last leg of a 24-day journey that began 350 miles away in Delano. The United Farm Workers union designed the march to pressure Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would give farmworkers the option to vote by mail in union elections, mirroring the way Californians vote for candidates for political office.

As state law currently stands, farmworkers must vote in union elections in person on sites owned by the growers that employ them.

“That creates a lot of intimidation. Many employers have security there, all the supervisors are there, and that doesn’t promote participation,” said United Farm Workers President Teresa Romero in an interview with KQED.

The Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, Assembly Bill 2183, would change that in-person voting requirement and would also prohibit growers from encouraging or discouraging union membership. Under the new bill, growers could also face fines of up to $25,000 for certain specific labor rights violations, and up to $10,000 for general labor rights violations.

But in a statement released hours before farmworkers were set to march the last mile to the Capitol, Newsom said he would not support the bill as it currently stands. The governor's office told The Fresno Bee that Newsom remains open to negotiations.

Veronica Mota, one of the 19 farmworkers who braved triple-digit temperatures for the entire 24-day march, said she was sad to hear that news, but that she remained motivated.

“This is not going to take away my motivation to continue pushing for what is right,” Mota told KQED. “It doesn’t end here. It starts here.”

smiling woman holds red flag as she walks at front of line of marchers along rural road in the sunshine
Izabella Gonzalez walks with her family during the United Farm Workers march leaving Walnut Grove on Day 22 of a 24-day 'March for the Governor's Signature' on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“Fifty-six years ago, César Chavez did this march to bring awareness to the issues of farmworkers,” Romero said.

“We thought it was important enough to recreate that march, so people and the consumers understand that farmworkers still need the rights that other workers have. We all eat because of their hard work.”

Lourdes Cardenas, a farmworker and union member, had been marching for days when KQED spoke with her in Spanish on Thursday morning.

“Even though our feet hurt, and our ankles hurt, it’s been a very strong [march]. We’re reaching for victory,” Cardenas said. “It would give us all better benefits, rights and equality. We’re people — we may have a lower salary, but we’re parents, we’re people.”

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line of marchers walks down a rural highway
Farmworkers and their supporters leave Walnut Grove on Day 22 of a 24-day 'March for the Governor’s Signature' on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Before reaching Sacramento, the march attracted hundreds of people over the 24 days since it started in the Kern County city of Delano.

Food vendors provided sopas, tacos and other cuisine for marchers; UC Davis medical students tended to blistered feet and swollen legs; and children of farmworkers came to support their families.

Flor Martinez Zaragoza, a prominent activist on Instagram and TikTok, said social media has helped her spread the word to a younger generation.

smiling woman holds bright union flag against bright blue sky
Flor Martinez Zaragoza walks with farmworkers and their supporters as they march through Walnut Grove on Day 22 of a 24-day 'March for the Governor’s Signature' on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

“This march has definitely felt historic. It’s from the heart, it’s raw emotions. It's blood, tears and sweat. It’s what it takes to create change, bring awareness, be seen and be heard,” Martinez Zaragoza said.

“Social media is a tool that we have now, and I think it’s important that we utilize it to organize and be able to make an impact. The youth have their phones on them 24/7.”

line or marchers, one draped in union flag, walk away from the camera along a rural highway next to a river
Farmworkers and their supporters march next to the Sacramento River as they pass through Walnut Grove on Day 22 of a 24-day 'March for the Governor’s Signature' on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

Although the march has gained the support of thousands of people in person and even more online, there is still opposition.

Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs for the Western Growers Association, which represents family farmers in California, Arizona, Colorado and New Mexico, said the bill is “the latest attempt to undermine the secret ballot election process as established by the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.”

If Gov. Newsom does not eventually sign the bill, Romero said the UFW “will regroup and plan because we are not going to give up. This is something that is that important to us, that is that important to farmworkers.”

woman with long grey hair wearing hat and light by early morning sun speaks as others listen
Teresa Romero, president of the United Farm Workers union, speaks to marchers in Walnut Grove before setting out on Day 22 of their 24-day 'March for the Governor’s Signature' on Wednesday. (Beth LaBerge/KQED)

When KQED spoke to Romero on Thursday, she was preparing to march 14 miles, the second-to-last leg of the campaign.

“It’s been 330 miles. Our bodies hurt, our feet are blistered,” Romero said. “We’re exhausted, but our spirits are high.”

This story includes reporting from KQED's Madi Bolaños and Don Thompson of The Associated Press.

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