Capitol Alert

40 years later, Jerry Brown is an evolving force on agricultural labor law

Cesar Chavez, left, and Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first round as governor.
Cesar Chavez, left, and Gov. Jerry Brown during Brown’s first round as governor. Sacramento Bee file

On the same day this summer that he celebrated the 40th anniversary of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act at a reception in Sacramento, Gov. Jerry Brown announced the abrupt reassignment of Sylvia Torres-Guillen, general counsel of the board created to enforce the law.

Farmers who accused Torres-Guillen of unfairly advocating for the United Farm Workers union, including in a bitter dispute with Gerawan Farming in Fresno County, viewed her departure as a victory for agribusiness – and a positive sign from Brown.

Though the Democratic governor signed the labor relations act when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, protecting the right of farmworkers to organize, Brown has frequently sided with industry interests since returning to office in 2011.

Yet Brown’s evolving approach to farm labor in California appears guided more by a shift in the state’s agricultural landscape – with a sharp decline in the influence of farmworker unions – than by any change in his own ideology.

The state’s farming industry has grown dramatically since Brown first took office in 1975, with greater crop yields and an increasing reliance on seasonal farmworkers brought to workplaces by labor contractors or other intermediaries. When Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the board routinely oversaw union certification elections every day, and often more than one.

Now, instead of overseeing elections, the ALRB more often presides over worker retaliation or discrimination cases involving farmworkers who are not represented by a union.

“It was definitely a different time in the ’70s,” said Bert Mason, a former Agricultural Labor Relations Board member and professor emeritus of agricultural business at California State University, Fresno. “The UFW was a much stronger, prominent force then.”

Decades later, Brown has carried forward ties he forged with the union in his first administration. He has frequently mentioned his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez, the late labor leader who placed Brown’s name into nomination for president at the 1976 Democratic National Convention.

William Gould, chairman of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said Brown “was the moving force, and he always took great interest in both the law and the agency, and I think that continues through to this day.

“It remains the same in the sense that I think he sees this statute as, quite correctly, very much his baby.”

Brown signed legislation in 2013 granting driver’s licenses to undocumented immigrants, and he has advocated federal immigration changes that many farm owners and farm workers alike support.

But Brown has disappointed the UFW on several union-related bills. When he vetoed a “card-check” bill that would have made it easier to unionize farmworkers in 2011, the UFW held a late-night vigil outside his office and accused Brown of discarding farmworkers, though Brown later signed a compromise bill.

Last year, Brown vetoed legislation that would have allowed the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to implement farm labor contracts secured through mandatory mediation even if employers appeal. Brown said in his veto message that “we should look at the entire process before making further changes” to contract enforcement and labor election disputes.

Before moving Torres-Guillen into a position in his office as a special counsel, Brown appointed Gould, who sparred openly with Torres-Guillen about the extent of her authority. Brown also vetoed Senate Bill 25, legislation that would have made it harder for California farmers to stall new farmworker contracts.

“With his SB 25 veto, and by pulling Sylvia Torres-Guillen out,” Gerawan co-owner Dan Gerawan said last week, “I think he has shown he wants to be fair.”

Though Brown has frustrated the UFW in recent years, his administration has begun pressing for an expansion of the labor board’s reach to farmworkers, including the vast majority who are not represented by unions.

Gould recently proposed granting state board employees the right to access farms without permission to educate workers about protections under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Gould described the proposal, which he outlined for an ad-hoc committee of farmers and labor organizations last week, as part of an effort to “make our board and our act relevant again.”

“Most of the agricultural workers in this state have not the slightest awareness of our statute and its procedures,” Gould said.

That board will always be controversial. Either the farmers don’t like what’s going on, or the UFW doesn’t like what’s going on. That’s been its fate since the beginning.

Gov. Jerry Brown

Gould’s proposal, which he said is still in preliminary form, recalls a similar effort by the board in an era when Brown was governor before and labor strife was at a peak. In 1979, the 4th District Court of Appeal upheld a San Diego Superior Court judge’s ruling prohibiting ALRB agents from conducting “worker education” without an employer’s permission on the grounds of San Diego Nursery Co.

Gould interprets the court decision as leaving open the authority for the board, through a rule change, to create a policy allowing access. If successful, Gould, a former National Labor Relations Board chairman, said, “this will be probably the most significant thing that I can do as chairman of this board.”

The proposal is likely to face resistance from farmers, many of whom harbor resentments from the 1970s and 1980s and see the board’s current involvement in the Garawan dispute – in which the UFW is seeking to represent some 3,000 workers based on an election held in 1992 – as evidence of lingering allegiance to the union.

“I have a feeling that’s not going to go over well, because that’s in effect a repeat of the 1970s, and the argument was the state of California was using tax money to help organize workers,” said Philip Martin, a professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at UC Davis. “It’s one thing to distribute literature in the various languages, but it’s another thing to send staff out, because that will be perceived as promoting organizing.”

Gerawan said, “In its current state, any farmer would be foolish to let ALRB on their property. ... They are clearly biased.”

For its part, the UFW reacted tepidly to the proposal. Arturo Rodriguez, the union president, said “worker education is a good thing … if it’s done right.”

But he added, “I think the enforcement part is the more important aspect of this.”

Rodriguez said Brown has cared about farmworkers for decades, and that even when they disagree about legislation, “we have always known he will do what he thinks is best” for workers. But he said Torres-Guillen was a “breath of fresh air” and that after her departure, “We’ll see.”

In an interview, Brown said that when he signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, “I probably thought there would be more ... members in the farmworker unions than there are.”

But he said the law is providing an authority to respond to farmworker complaints and that Torres-Guillen sought her reassignment because she wanted to move to Los Angeles.

Brown said conflicts between the Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s general counsel and board are frequent.

“That board will always be controversial,” Brown said. “Either the farmers don’t like what’s going on, or the UFW doesn’t like what’s going on. That’s been its fate since the beginning.”

Jon Esformes of tomato-grower Pacific Triple E speaks at a ceremony marking the signing of a new contract with the United Farm Workers union east of Stockton on June 28, 2015. Video by David Siders, The Sacramento Bee.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders