California Farmworkers Union fights to vote by mail in union elections

For a largely unorganized sector, expanded voting access would be a huge win.


United Farm Workers union members gather at a community outreach meeting about prioritizing COVID-19 vaccinations for farmworkers earlier this year in Oxnard, California.
Patrick T. Fallon/AFP via Getty Images

Editor’s note: On Sept. 23, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed Assembly Bill 616, writing in a veto message that “the bill contains various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.”

After months of legislative battles, California farmworkers’ unions are poised to win a major expansion in voting rights.

Earlier this month, the state Senate approved Assembly Bill 616, which would allow farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections. Labor experts say that by expanding union elections to include mail-in ballots, AB 616 — which was sponsored by the United Farm Workers (UFW) and now sits on Gov. Gavin Newsom’s desk — would free workers from employers’ potential intimidation tactics.

AB 616 comes after organizers suffered an enormous setback earlier this year: In June, the Supreme Court ruled that union representatives could not enter farms or speak to workers during non-working hours, thereby severely curtailing their ability to present their case.

For a largely unorganized sector, AB 616 could be something of a lifeline.

Why is the union fighting to expand voter access?

As things currently stand, employers get nearly unlimited access to workers, and union representatives  lacking any access to workplaces, thanks to this summer’s Supreme Court ruling  are unable to rebut their anti-union narrative.

“Union elections are totally one-sided,” said Catherine Fisk, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law and Work. “Employers would rather have voting happen at the workplace, where they can exclude the union. They’ve become very skilled at running vigorous and often illegal anti-union campaigns at the workplace. Public relations teams and lawyers train companies how to persuade, cajole and threaten the workforce to oppose the union.”

“Employers would rather have voting happen at the workplace, where they can exclude the union.”

How many farmworkers are in unions? 

Fewer than 1% of U.S. farmworkers belong to a union, according to Civil Eats, a nonprofit news site about the nation’s food system. In California, that number is only slightly higher, at 1.6%. Out of more than 400,000 farmworkers in California last year, just 6,626 belonged to the United Farm Workers. 

And what is Big Agribusiness saying about AB 616?

In a prepared statement, Western Growers President & CEO Dave Puglia said the bill circumvents “the democratic process entirely, and vests in union organizers the dangerous power to disenfranchise farmworkers and predetermine election outcomes.”

Meanwhile, at a rally against AB 616 in Sacramento, Jamie Johansson, the president of the California Farm Bureau, urged Newsom to veto the bill, describing it as a “card check” system and claiming it took away farmworkers’ rights to an election free from union coercion. 

What is a “card check” system?

Card check  the dominant union selection system from the 19th century until the mid-20th century  allows workers to sign authorization “cards” designating a union as their representative for collective bargaining. When more than half of the workers decide they want to be represented by a union, the employer must then recognize the union. Employers claim card checks enable union organizers to more easily sway workers.

But Fisk said the bill is not in fact a card check system. “Calling AB 616 a card check, they are trying to associate it with an unreliable system that allows for coercion or fraud.” Under AB 616, ballots are distributed by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board — not the union, as can be the case in a card check system — and ballots would remain closed and sealed until they are delivered to the ALRB. 

What are the stakes of farmworker organizing?

The labor standards that do exist  concerning wage protection, housing standards, bathrooms, shade, potable water, pesticide protection and prohibitions on child labor  were won through worker advocacy and agitation. Now, as the climate crisis makes fieldwork increasingly deadly during summer, with its wildfire smoke and deadly heat waves, the UFW is advocating for a federal heat standard to protect workers. (The UFW did not respond to requests for comment.)

The legislation would merely give workers the same rights that all Californians have in political elections, said Fisk. “Do I see it as more democratic? I do,” she said. “I see no reason why farmworkers should not have the same protections as California voters.”

Theo Whitcomb is an editorial intern at High Country News. We welcome reader letters. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.

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