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Calif. Bill Would Ease Farmworker Unionization

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(credit: AP)

(credit: AP)

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SACRAMENTO, Calif. (AP) — Gov. Jerry Brown has until midnight Tuesday to act on a bill that would make it easier for unions to organize farmworkers in California, but growers characterize the legislation as a union power-grab.

The bill would allow farmworkers to organize by signing a petition away from the fields, rather than holding a secret ballot election as they do now.

Unions say the current system leads to intimidation by employers, while farmers say a petition system would make it easier for union organizers to bully workers into joining. Growers and other business groups also say greater unionization in the fields will boost food prices.

Former Republican Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger vetoed similar legislation four times, but officials with the United Farm Workers union say they believe the so-called card-check bill has a better chance with Brown, a Democrat.

The governor’s office declined to comment about when he might act on SB104, sponsored by state Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento. In 1975, during his first term as governor, Brown signed the bill that allowed farmworkers to unionize using the secret ballot.

UFW members, union officials and supporters demonstrated at the Capitol on Tuesday, urging Brown to sign the bill. Union leaders characterized Brown’s choice as one between the powerful $36-billion-a-year agricultural industry and farmworkers, the poorest workers in the state.

Workers put it in more personal terms.

“It would change a lot of things for farm workers, including (medical) insurance,” said Angelina Jimenez of Lamont, interviewed at the Capitol on Tuesday through a Spanish translator who is a UFW member.

Jimenez picks and prunes table grapes at various locations in California’s Central Valley, where shade is scarce and summer temperatures often top 100 degrees. Although state rules require shade and water for workers, Jimenez said grape workers who suffer a heat-related problem in the field may be dropped at the emergency room and left on the hook for medical bills.

The UFW says the secret ballot process allows growers to intimidate workers with threats of lost work, firing of family members and even deportation.

Growers and business groups say such intimidation is rare and that there already are laws in place to punish it.

They contend the real goal of the bill is to boost union membership. UFW membership in California is down from more than 70,000 during the 1970s to about 27,000 today. The state has roughly 460,000 agricultural workers.

The California Farm Bureau Federation, which has opposed the card-check legislation over the years, declined to comment Tuesday while the governor’s decision was pending.

Other opponents include the California Chamber of Commerce, which has listed the bill among its annual list of “job killers,” and groups representing manufacturers, retailers and restaurant owners. Even the U.S. Chamber of Commerce has weighed in, calling the bill a barrier to jobs and growth.

That opposition is part of the decision facing Brown.

Brown won backing for his budget proposal this year from some of the business groups that oppose the card-check bill. Although Brown has dropped his plan for a special election to extend higher taxes to help balance the state budget and pay down debt, he may hope to keep the business groups on his side as he pursues an initiative on taxes in 2012.

(Copyright 2011 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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