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California farmworkers hold vigil to support union bill

There’s been pressure for Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign a bill that would allow the state’s farmworkers to vote in private to unionize. The governor already vetoed a similar bill before KPBS reporter Kitty Alvarado spoke with a farmworker who walked to the Capitol and a local farm manager about the legislation, the California Labor Federation and a local farm owner.

"Si Se Puede!" chanted thousands of farmworkers as they marched toward the state capitol in Sacramento last month — for some of them, it is the end of a 24-day, 335-mile pilgrimage in sweltering August heat. Their goal: To convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign AB 2183, a bill that would allow them to vote in union elections by mail or card check.

Leading the group and the chant on that August day were labor leader Dolores Huerta, who coined the phrase, "Si Se Puede," and farmworker Xochitl Nunez. Today, Nunez is one of a few farmworkers who remain at the capitol, holding vigil while the bill waits on the governor's desk.

"The next step for me is a hunger strike, because he [Gov. Newsom] doesn’t come out and say anything," Nunez said in Spanish. "If we are essential like he says we are, prove it. Give us the signature so we can go to work and go home to our children."

Nunez told KPBS she’s angry that while the farmworkers are waiting for a decision on their bill, the governor has already signed other legislation to protect fast food workers and raise their wages.

"We're the ones who pick the tomatoes, lettuce, onions, cucumbers for that fast food ... without us there is no fast food," she said.

"They’re just asking for a safe way to vote for a union," said Lorena Gonzalez Fletcher of the California Labor Federation. She and her husband, San Diego County Supervisor Nathan Fletcher, walked with the farmworkers for 35 miles.

Gonzalez Fletcher said the bill is important because farmworkers are in a more vulnerable position than others who try to unionize. "When a boss wants to retaliate, they often deport these workers," she said. "It’s not just the potential of losing one’s job, but it’s about being deported and livelihood. So what they’re asking for is for a safe way, [a] secret way by which they can vote and their boss doesn’t know." 

Gonzalez Fletcher said she has not seen anything like this since the Cesar Chavez movement, and she says it resonates beyond the farmworker community. "It’s symbolic for the entire Latino community," she said, "and it’s also symbolic for all of labor. We saw firefighters come out, nurses come out, teachers, everybody within organized labor came out to this march, it’s really crossing all cultural lines and really bringing people together."

It’s not just labor putting pressure on Newsom. Powerful members of his own party are, too. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi are publicly supporting the bill.

Opposition comes from Republicans in the state legislature, and from farm owners, who note similar bills have failed before.

"We the farmers agree with three governors that have vetoed this same bill saying that the current laws already in place are adequate," said Al Stehly, owner of Stehly Grove Management. He is also a member of the Board of Directors of the San Diego Farm Bureau.

Stehly grows avocados, grapes and citrus on his farm in Valley Center. He has 30 employees, and told KPBS their employees are more like family. "I’ve been in business over 40 years and some of my employees have been with me that long, since I started. Some of my employees are second generation employees, and this summer we had third generation employees," he said. He added it says a lot about how he treats his employees.

Stehly said this bill takes away the rights of farmers. "We the farmers don’t want to erode our private-property rights by having to give  access to the unions to the property. Nor do we want to give up our free speech rights to be able to talk with our employees about any union organization," he said.

The National Labor Relations Board outlines what employers may and may not do when employees seek to unionize. Among the things not allowed: "threatening, interrogating, or spying on pro-union employees."

Stehly said allowing card check or mail-in voting would lead to pressure on farmworkers, calling it "just a formula for intimidation and arm twisting [by the union]."

Stehly also said the card check is not a secret ballot and exposes how people vote and their information.  

Back in Sacramento, Nunez said those arguments don't make sense to her as she continues her vigil, sending a message to Newsom: "Please, I am asking you with all my heart give us your vote because we need it to help our families get ahead, so we aren’t denigrated in the fields and are given some respect."

Newsom has until Sept. 30 to sign or veto the bill.

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  • One of the bills awaiting Governor Gavin Newsom’s signature would allow farmworkers to vote on unionizing by mail or card check. He’s vetoed similar legislation before.

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