Proposed labor bill would preserve the secret ballot
By Christine Souza
As the state Legislature works toward its deadline for bills in the first year of the current session, a bill proposed by Gov. Jerry Brown has been introduced that makes revisions to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act, and preserves the secret ballot election for unionization.
"This is a clearly a departure from the current law so we have to look at this with a very careful eye, and we are conducting that analysis now. We are glad that the bill preserves the secret ballot for union elections," California Farm Bureau Federation President Paul Wenger said.
While the United Farm Workers pressed for new efforts to pass a "majority signup" or "card check" proposal and to change California overtime laws, Gov. Brown responded with a proposal of his own: Senate Bill 126, introduced by state Senate leader Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.
More than 35 years ago, Brown signed into law the nation's first agricultural labor relations act giving agricultural workers the right to consider unionization by secret ballot.
In June, Brown declined to sign a card-check bill, S.B. 104, also by Steinberg, that would have required a farm employer to recognize a union simply on the strength of a majority of the employees signing cards signifying interest in unionization.
In the governor's veto statement at the time, addressed to members of the California State Senate, he noted that "S.B. 104 is a drastic change and I appreciate the frustrations that have given rise to it. But, I am not yet convinced that the far reaching proposals of this bill—which alter in a significant way the guiding assumptions of the ALRA—are justified. Before restructuring California's carefully crafted agricultural labor law, it is only right that the Legislature consider legal provisions that more faithfully track its original framework."
This year marked the fifth consecutive year that the card-check law was passed and then vetoed. Similar bills were vetoed by former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Last week, Gov. Brown told the Sacramento Bee that if another card-check bill reached his desk, he would not sign it, and Wenger said farm organizations were pleased to see that the governor followed through and upheld farmworkers' rights to a secret ballot election.
"Gov. Brown did take a targeted approach rather than making the broad, sweeping changes to the law that card check would have represented," Wenger said.
Key provisions in SB 126 address specific problems that had been claimed with the current law. For example, SB 126 would allow the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to certify a union as the bargaining agent for employees if it finds employer misconduct that, "in addition to affecting the outcome of the election, would render slight the chances of a new election reflecting the free and fair choice of employees."
Analysts who have read the bill indicated that its intent appears to be to have the legislation apply in cases where employers have acted illegally.
The UFW, during a march through the Central Valley to Sacramento, also said it intended to seek introduction of a bill to rewrite overtime rules for agricultural workers.
Last year, Gov. Schwarzenegger vetoed a bill that would have mandated overtime pay for agricultural employees after eight hours of daily work or 40 hours of weekly work.
"It's important to remember that California law already provides overtime pay for farm employees, and the state's requirements are the most progressive in the nation," CFBF Associate Counsel Carl Borden said.
Farm employees qualify for overtime wages after 10 hours of work in a single day and for all hours worked on a seventh consecutive day in a workweek.
"Existing overtime law provides enough flexibility for both farmers and their employees to deal with the variability of farm work," Borden said, noting that on-farm jobs typically slow down during the offseason, and employees often count on working extra hours during production and harvest.
"If overtime pay were to be required after eight hours a day or 40 hours a week, employers who cannot afford to pay the overtime premium would instead be forced to reduce the working hours of their farm employees by as much as one-third. That means individual farm employees would lose hours and pay," Borden said.
(Christine Souza is an assistant editor of Ag Alert. She may be contacted at firstname.lastname@example.org.)
Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.