"Mediated Elections" Process for Farmworkers Moving Forward in California

Reacting to a spate of recent farmworker deaths, both houses of the California legislature have approved a new "mediated election" process for farmworker unions. AB 2386 will strengthen farmworkers abilities to form labor unions and address workplace conditions.

Six farmworkers have died this summer of suspected heat illness and 15 have died since 2003 despite requirements adopted in 2005 that employers provide minimum heat illness safeguards. AB 2386, sponsored by Speaker Emeritus Nunez, proposes a new process that allows farmworkers to quickly vote by mail with two choices on the ballot to directly vote for the union on the ballot or to vote for a more traditional union election later, with the whole process overseen by a mediator jointly chosen by the union and the employer.

The bill is supported by the United Farm Workers, which likens the process to absentee voting: "Just like an absentee ballot, you get your ballot, you vote at home, you turn it back in," UFW organizing director Armando Elenes said by telephone. "In this process that currently exists ... you're talking about incredible amounts of coercion and intimidation right before the voting starts."

AB 2386 passed the Assembly in May and passed the Senate in a different last month. The bill is currently being reconciled and then will move to the Governor's desk. Two previous pieces of legislation SB 180 (Migden) and SB 650 (Padilla) that would have given farmworkers the ability to form unions via a majority sign-up process were vetoed last year. Nunez specifically crafted mediated elections to address the Governor's concerns with the previous bills.

How Traditional Union Election Processes Fail Workers: The California bill addresses the problems that workers typically face when they try to form unions. Since 1975, there have been 151 union recognition elections. In 143 of those cases, 95%, there were findings of employer violations of the law compared to just 8 violations of the law by unions. According to a Cornell University survey of 400 traditional ballot box union elections conducted in 1998 and 1999, 36 percent of workers who vote against joining a union explain their vote as a response to employer pressure. Both Canada and Britain have successfully used card check and neutrality procedures.

Mediated and similar union election procedures like card check streamline the process by which workers can form unions and provide them the ability to choose their own representatives. According to a recent Associated Press article, "Sen. Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, said helping farm workers organize is the best way to improve working conditions and avoid more field deaths. California could hire dozens more inspectors to enforce regulations designed to prevent heat deaths and not have as much effect."

The farmworker bill is just following the example of states like New York, Illinois, New Jersey, New Hampshire, Oregon, and Massachusetts which have card check processes for for public employee unions. Tribal casino workers in New York and California already have the ability to join unions through card check and employer neutrality agreements. Illinois airport workers also have the right to card check elections. The Hawaii legislature passed a card check bill this session, which was then vetoed by Gov. Linda Lingle. With the rising death toll in California's fields, the farmworker bill is a necessary solution to an urgent problem.

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