DCalifornia’s farmworkers have been on an historic 335-mile, 24 day march from Delano toward Sacramento to win the right to take part in elections free of intimidation from employers. The journey to the California State Capitol began Aug. 3 by members of United Farm Workers (UFW) and is being joined by friends in selected towns.
This group marches to get Gov. Gavin Newsom must sign bill AB2183 to allow farmworkers to vote through mail to create a union. Because the ballots could be mailed from home instead of submitted at their place of employment, organizers believe farmworkers’ votes are less likely to be influenced by their bosses.
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“We want the right to union representation and to vote from home or mail, like any other vote,” Lourdes Cardenas, 59, and member of the UFW for the past 15 years, told TIME in Spanish. “It’s a right that we deserve as citizens and as workers.”
Since over a decade, union members have advocated for such legislation. In September 2021, AB 616 was close to being passed. That proposal passed through both branches of the state legislature, but Newsom vetoed it, claiming the bill contained “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards” in a public statement.
Today’s marchers travel almost exactly the same route that Cesar Chavez used in 1966 to bring attention to the harsh conditions faced by California farmworkers. The UFW was founded by Chavez, who also signed the first labor contract as a result. Some are still reflecting upon their initial demands as the workers continue on a long and difficult journey.
Roberto Bustos, captain of the 1966 farmworkers’ march that led to the UFW’s first union contract, joined this year’s marchers for part of their route. “Again, the farmworkers are still not getting their federal protections, their rights,” he said in a video recorded by the UFW. “So we have to keep on marching.”
Voting by mail is important
Farmworkers have a number of options to vote for unionization. Catherine Fisk (director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law and Work) says agricultural workers still face intimidation from unions due to their precarious immigration status. Fwd.us is a bipartisan political group that reports that 50% of agricultural workers are undocumented.
Fisk notes also that farmworkers’ limited literacy can have an effect on their productivity. According to Fisk, more than half of them either don’t speak English at all or very little English, the National Center for Farmworker Health.
“Being able to vote by mail at home enables them to get assistance from a family member or a friend who is literate in the language that the ballot is printed in,” Fisk tells TIME.
Farmworkers are not protected by better labor laws
A wave of big-name employers such as Amazon and Starbucks attempted to unionize the U.S. during the Pandemic. However, farmworkers are not as successful because they have historically been excluded from federal labor protections such the 1935 National Labor Relations Act. This law prohibits employers fired workers from supporting or participating in a labor organization.
Agricultural workers’ did not earn the right to unionize until four decades later, in 1975. However, their labor protections still fall under the control of the independent, state-level agency called the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.
The bill being pushed by marchers, AB 2183 has been signed into support by 50 legislators. It proposes a way of voting that is similar to those used in elections which allow absentee ballots. Farmers would have the option of voting in person, at home, by post, or in writing to the ALRB. The National Labor Relations Board, a federal agency protecting the rights of the majority of private sector workers’ labor rights, would conduct the union vote in this manner.
How employer intimidation works
It’s illegal to intimidate workers who try to form a union. But voting while at work made it more likely that farmworkers would vote the way their employers wanted, organizers say—typically, in opposition to a union.
A 2013 case against Gerawan Farming—one of the largest peach and grape growers—is an example of the kind of intimidation farmworkers face, Capital and Main reports. Gerwan stopped negotiations with UFW by enlisting supervisors, anti-union workers, to force farmworkers into signing a petition opposing the union. This led to the shutdown of production and the blocking of entry to the fields.
Workers voted no to forming a new union when the time came for the next union election.
“Even when an election can be held” there is an environment of fear, Elizabeth Strater, the Director of Strategic Campaigns at UFW, says. “It’s just so difficult for farmworkers to cross that final hurdle…The barriers are so enormous.”
Strater says that the number of people involved in UFW is the best indicator of difficulties. UFW’s current membership rests at less than 8,000 union members nationwide, although California alone boasts more than 400,000 farmworkers.
Opposition to AB2183
Western Growers is an association representing family farmers in four states. It opposes this bill. This legislation will undermine secret ballot elections. Secret ballots allow farmworkers to vote anonymously without the presence of any supervisors or representatives. Voting by mail would eliminate a worker’s right to a ballot that “is free from coercion from any party,” says Matthew Allen, Vice President, State Government Affairs at Western Growers, in an email statement to TIME.
Fisher Phillips, a labor and employment law firm that represents employers, alleges the bill could cause voter fraud because union members could help translate or fill out ballot cards, meaning they could prefill employee’s cards.
Fisk says that it’s the same debate that happens during political elections. Democrats urge that “making it easier to vote by allowing voting by mail is the way to go, that voter suppression is a more serious problem than voter fraud,” Fisk says. “And here growers are taking the position on the other side.”
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California is a state where everyone registered votes receives a vote by mail ballot. Absentee ballots can be used in California.
Marchers have taken to the streets in spite of severe heatwaves and temperatures exceeding 100 degrees. Cardenas said that although the walk was challenging, she felt supported by her faith because marchers carried an image of La Virgen de Guadalupe which is a Catholic and Mexican symbol for hope and strength.
“No matter how hard these streets are, she won’t let us fall,” Cardenas says.
On Aug. 26, the farmworkers will arrive in Washington, D.C.
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