Many baby boomers who marched with Cesar Chavez and boycotted table grapes during their college years in an effort to help the labor leader establish the United Farm Workers Union were stunned during the spring by newspaper headlines blaring that "Farmworker Union Fights Against Secret Ballots."
Well, those headlines were slightly misleading. It turns out the UFW wants the legal right to win union contracts for farm workers by using one other process in addition to secret ballots.
As it now stands, farm workers who want to bring in the union must sign petitions and submit them to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which then conducts a secret-ballot election, often within a week of getting the signed petitions.
The union, via a legislative bill called SB 180, authored by Democratic state Sen. Carole Migden of San Francisco, wants the right to submit signed cards asking for union representation, and if a majority of eligible workers signs those cards, wants the union recognized without a formal election.
That can be better than secret ballot elections, says Giev Kashkooli, national legislative director of the UFW, because farm owners never see the cards which go straight to the labor relations board and are never seen by farm owners and managers. The union argues this gives workers the same anonymity as a secret ballot. The UFW wants workers to have the option of which way to seek recognition.
The reasons they cite: Intimidation and fear. "Multiple administrative law judges for the ALRB have thrown out union elections on farms due to employer intimidation," says Kashkooli. "We've had instances where 78 percent of the workers on a farm signed petitions or union authorization cards, but when the election was held a week later, only 48 percent voted for the union. How often do you see any political poll shift 30 points in one week?"
The union contends that when faced with union elections, some farmers threaten to sell their land for development. Others, the union reports, threaten to tear down worker housing if the union wins an election and/or tell workers their jobs will be eliminated or handed over to labor contractors.
There is documentation that some farms have fired workers for union activism during the time between when an election is called and when it is held.
Such tactics, Kashkooli says, are the main reason the UFW has won only about half the union elections of the last 16 years. "We have studies showing as many as 46 percent of all workers eligible to vote in farm union elections have been illegally intimidated by employers," he said.
Interviews with farm workers backed up at least some stories of intimidation. "We have tried twice to organize on the farm where I work" said Antonio P., who picks table grapes at a farm near Earlimart, between Bakersfield and Visalia in the Central Valley. He spoke through an interpreter.
"We have received many threats," Antonio continued. He authorized this column to use his full name, but it is withheld to prevent any possible retaliation. "They say they will fire all of us and sell the land if we vote for the union. They say they will switch from grapes and put in almonds, which take less workers to harvest. They have said they will get rid of our whole crew and bring in a different one. A lot of people get scared during the time before an election."
But as it stands, even if every worker on a farm signs a union petition, that's not enough to bring in the union. The 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act requires a secret ballot no matter what. The provision was inserted to prevent direct punishment of workers who favor the union, but the union and individual workers say threats thwart the secret ballot system.
Now it's grower groups that want to keep unionization elections conducted solely by secret ballot. "A fundamental right of the farmworker," Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, told a reporter. "I don't believe you correct a perceived injustice by creating a bigger injustice ..."
The union says that when authorization cards by themselves are enough to bring in the union, management often doesn't know sufficient cards have been filed until after the fact, thus preventing most intimidation.
But farm groups argue that using a cards-only system would deny employers the right to state their case to their workers.
Legislators will have to sort through that dispute, but for sure the union's desire to use something other than secret ballots looks quite different when examined in detail than what was implied by the newspaper headlines greeting Migden's bill.