UFW, Jerry Brown meet in the middle -- for now

Published: Saturday, Sep. 3, 2011 - 12:00 am | Page 1A
Last Modified: Saturday, Sep. 3, 2011 - 10:19 am

Even before the United Farm Workers union started marching through the Central Valley, through vineyards and orchards to a rally at the Capitol, Arturo Rodriguez, the union president, knew Gov. Jerry Brown wouldn't sign the farmworker legislation he was pushing.

Not this year, at least.

But two months after Brown vetoed a "card-check" bill that would have made it easier to unionize farmworkers, the Democratic governor made significant movement on the issue in a compromise proposal this week, offering organizing farmworkers greater protections within existing law.

The proposal, negotiated by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg and written into a bill by legislative Democrats on Friday, is considered far-reaching enough and sure enough to pass that the union is preparing to turn its protest rally Sunday into a celebration.

Rodriguez said Brown "has helped us take the biggest step forward in our campaign on fair treatment for farmworkers."

But to Rodriguez, the compromise is also evidence that Brown is not inflexible. The union will continue pushing for its original bill, and tension between Brown and farmworkers is likely to persist.

"He said 'no' for right now, but he hasn't said 'no' for sometime in the future," Rodriguez said. "The Latino community busted our tails to elect him. … He has a responsibility to do things."

Rodriguez's view reflects the union's disappointment in a governor who is considered its best hope in years to pass card-check legislation that would give farmworkers an alternative to secret-ballot elections, letting them organize by submitting petition cards instead.

Democratic lawmakers and labor advocates said the bill would protect farmworkers from interference by growers in union elections, while growers said expanding unions' influence would unnecessarily burden businesses.

The California Chamber of Commerce included it on its list of "job killer" bills, and Brown's Republican predecessor, Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, vetoed it four times in four years.

"I assume they want to keep the pressure on, and that's why they're marching," said Philip Martin, a UC Davis professor who studies farm labor and immigration issues. "If they believe that it just takes more time and demonstrations, I'd believe them."

However, Martin said, the UFW has been unable for years to gain ground on its most significant state issues, card-check and wage increases.

The compromise proposal advancing in the Legislature includes provisions that would let the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board certify a union when it finds that grower misconduct affected an election's outcome. It would also expand the use of injunctions in disputes and shorten timelines for binding mediation.

Steinberg, who carried the card-check bill Brown vetoed, called the compromise proposal a "major advance for farmworkers."

Rodriguez said, "Let's see if it works."

Industry officials and Republican lawmakers said they were reviewing the bill, but they are skeptical. Assemblyman Bill Berryhill, R-Ceres, said the lateness of the agreement, coming just before the final week of the legislative session, "should make everybody nervous."

Brown signed the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act and vetoed legislation to weaken farmworker unions when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983. He frequently mentioned his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez, the late labor leader, in his most recent gubernatorial campaign.

But the farmworkers union organized a highly personal protest when Brown vetoed card-check in June, including a late-night vigil outside his office and accusations the next day that Brown had discarded farmworkers like squeezed oranges.

In his veto message, Brown wrote, "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."

The political dynamic at the Capitol has changed since Brown's veto. Brown and Steinberg, who were skirmishing when Steinberg first thrust card-check on him, jamming Brown as he tried to negotiate a budget deal with Republicans, have reconciled.

Calling the last few months "rough on this issue," Steinberg said, "I want to commend the governor and the UFW for hanging in there."

FARMWORKERS

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