When you buy produce, you might assume that it is farmed and harvested with minimal standards of justice or it wouldn’t be legal to sell in grocery stores all across America. But farmworkers in the most productive valley in the US have a request.
It’s a simple enough ask: that farmworkers in California be allowed to vote by mail as to whether or not they want to be represented by a union. Voting by mail has become a safe and standard electoral practice for all registered voters in the state, and California’s legislature recently passed a measure that would allow farmworkers to use mail-in ballots when making a choice on matters of union representation.
Currently farmworkers must vote at a site specified by the state’s Agricultural Relations Board, and supporters of the bill argue that mail-in ballots would free the workers, many of whom are undocumented, from intimidation and retaliation by employers.
But California’s Governor Gavin Newsom has yet to sign the bill, and it will die unless he does so by September 30. He vetoed an earlier version of the bill last year, citing “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards,” and sponsors of the bill made changes that they hoped would secure his signature. But without providing more detail, Newsom again indicated an inclination not to support the bill.
Some 400,000 agricultural workers, almost half of whom are undocumented, labor to provide the fruits, vegetables, and other commodities that feed much of the nation. Three quarters of the nation’s fruits and nuts are grown in California; a third of its vegetables come from the state. During the pandemic, a new awareness arose of these essential workers, toiling to feed the nation despite little protection against the ravages of Covid.
With this increased visibility came reminders and indicators of past and present injustices: the exclusion, for example, of farmworkers from protections under the New Deal’s National Labor Relations Act; the exploitation of workers for decades, manifesting in poor working conditions, low wages and wage theft, and exposure to pesticides.
A powerful response to these injustices arose in the 1960’s and 1970’s, with the formation of the United Farm Workers (UFW) under the visionary leadership of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta. By means of boycotts, marches, and other dramatic actions, the UFW as a national union won numerous contracts and helped lead to the passage in 1975 of landmark legislation in California that backed the right of farmworkers to organize collectively. At its height in the early 1970’s, the UFW had grown to 80,000 members with broad support amongst US citizens across the land.
But subsequent decades were hard on unions in general, with a political and legal environment increasingly hostile to organized labor, and with U.S. employers expending vast sums on highly effective union busting activities. In agriculture, changing employment practices made organizing more difficult, as increasing numbers of growers relied on contractors to supply workers instead of hiring them directly. And last year the U.S. Supreme Court ruled that union organizers could no longer organize on growers’ property, overturning a California law that had been a major achievement of the UFW’s efforts almost a half century earlier.
Nevertheless, despite the declines in membership, the UFW has continued to advocate for farmworkers, working through political and legal channels to help improve protections from heat exposure and pesticides, and to end the exclusion from overtime pay.
Yet regrowing membership remains essential for empowering workers and for strengthening their voice in helping determine the conditions and quality of their working lives. This is one major reason why farmworkers and their allies undertook a 24-day, 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento last month to dramatize the situation and to press the governor into signing the enabling legislation. Advancing through the intense heat of California’s Central Valley in mid-August, the marchers evoked memories of a historic march 56 years earlier that drew national attention to the poor wages and working conditions experienced by agricultural laborers.
Despite all this. Newsom didn’t budge, and the clock has continued ticking.
Since then President Biden and other national leaders have urged the governor to sign the bill, and it remains unclear as to why a governor who recently signed landmark legislation empowering fast food workers will not step up for agricultural laborers. Whatever his political calculus may be, Newsom’s inaction to date is consonant with a long history of marginalizing many of America’s most essential – and most vulnerable – workers.
The inaction is unacceptable. Simply put, the people who feed this nation deserve full rights and dignity as workers.