Farmworkers’ struggle wins expansion of union rights in Calif.

Photo: Vigil outside the state capitol demanding passage of AB 2183

On Sept. 28, California Governor Gavin Newsom signed AB 2183: Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act, a historic bill that gives unprecedented union protections to California farm workers, a group that historically has not been offered the same protections as other sectors of the working class. The signing of this bill did not come without struggle, as this truly was a victory won by the power and demands of the working class.

On the south side of the California State Capitol in Sacramento, under a small bundle of canopies shielded by an outstretched cloth banner reading “PASS AB 2183,” the hum of cumbia and laughter can be heard from the campesinos and supporters of the United Farm Workers. Immediately following the long 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento on August 27, the UFW organized 24-hour vigils in major cities across the state as an extension of their campaign to demand Governor Gavin Newsom sign AB 2183, a bill that would empower California’s farm workers with rights to vote in a union election by mail versus the option of voting at their worksite where farm workers would face the boss’s retaliation, including threats regarding workers’ immigration status for voting to unionize. Despite the show of support by thousands of community members, activists and labor unions that marched alongside the farm workers, Governor Newsom initially refused to sign the bill while UFW organized a petition and 24-hour vigils outside of the state capitol in Sacramento to keep the pressure on.

Throughout the duration of the vigil, spirits remained high. Supporters were heard cheering “SÍ SE PUEDE” and “QUE VIVA LOS CAMPESINOS” to honking cars passing by and gathering together around food under tarps and canopies — even in the bouts of rain, even in the record high heat of 116°F, and even after 28 nights of sleeping under canopies. Many of those at the vigil have been dedicated to the cause since the beginning, marching hundreds of miles from Delano to Sacramento. Others drove hours from the Bay Area to spend their evenings and weekends at the vigil in solidarity. 

In front of the towering white pillars of Sacramento’s capitol building, the vigil was stunning — decorated with paper flowers, posters, red UFW banners, photographs of César Chávez and small trinkets as offerings. A majority of farm workers in California are immigrants from Mexico or Central America and many are Catholic so a vigil as a demonstration holds cultural significance along with their political demand to Newsom. Vigils oftentimes represent the collective prayers and commitment of a community. The UFW vigil reflected the unwavering determination of campesinos to win the right to vote in union elections, free from the fear of retaliation or intimidation.

In addition to passing the bill, there are a number of concerns that campesinas are voicing: fear of being discriminated against on the job, deportation, and sexual assault or harassment by bosses, contractors or even other farm workers. Women who are assaulted while working in the fields are effectively silenced when told they will be deported or given more work if they speak out. 

Xochilt, a campesina, described how women are also made to prove themselves to work with certain fruits. When grapes were replaced by almonds, prunes and apricots — trees instead of vines — where she worked, Xochilt was one of the first women to work in these more difficult terrains. She set an example that, “Yes, we can do this type of work as women! But they discriminate against us a lot. They put us to the side and say that we occupy men’s work when the job is tough. When they start the job, they only let men [work].” 

Another campesina, Cynthia, also spoke about her experience as a woman farm worker.  Cynthia has had to sacrifice time with family and work to be a part of a union movement that is fighting for dignity and representation — something that impacts thousands of farm workers including women like herself. In an interview with Liberation News, Cynthia questioned the integrity of Governor Newsom: “The union says to him, ‘sign it, and then we’ll go. We are tired. We don’t sleep. We eat what people give us. I think that it is time to act like someone with a heart, like a person … Your children ate throughout the pandemic — thanks to the farmworkers. You woke up and ate fruit and salad — verdad — thanks to the farmworkers.’” 

Both Cynthia and Xochilt emphasized how imperative the passing of AB 2183 will be to allow safer and more just conditions.

One of the key provisions in the bill outlines a right to cast their vote by mail or drop-off ballot locations, which would provide protection and the security for farm workers to not be retaliated against by growers. Fear is a mechanism for social control, and for undocumented immigrants, the threat of deportation is wielded by bosses and contractors to try to squash efforts to organize or vote ‘yes’ in union elections.

Francisco Naranjo, a farm worker who helped organize for the same bill last year, spoke to the importance of AB 2183: “Without this law, farm workers don’t have a fighting chance. Growers will continue to manipulate the process and intimidate us to take away our voice. Being allowed the privilege to vote offsite would allow farm workers to make their own decision and vote for a union with its benefits without supervisors’ interference.”

Nonetheless, farm workers remained resilient in their demand that Newsom pass AB 2183 — from their 23-day march from Delano to Sacramento in August to their current statewide vigils that endure. On Sunday, Sept. 25, campesinos and supporters appeared with bright red shirts and flags at a Climate Festival at McClatchy Park in Sacramento to raise awareness of their campaign, and the deplorable working conditions in the fields, including exposure to extreme temperatures and pesticides. 

The vigil and the march brought widespread recognition beyond the local community level of the farm workers’ sacrifice and demands. Even the White House issued a statement on Sept. 4, stating that it was important for workers to have the right to organize, citing the history of racist laws that discriminate against Black and Brown workers in this country. Even with calls to sign the bill from the leadership of his own party, Govern Newsom still refused to sign the bill.

On Sept. 28, after weeks of letting AB 2183 sit on his desk, with two days left to sign the bill, Governor Newsom signed the bill into law. This historic victory for farm workers was won by the demands of the people. Thousands of people from throughout the community marched, and participated in the vigil to demand better working conditions and the opportunity to unionize and exercise working-class power. 

Newsom did however sign the bill contingent on concessions from the farm workers in the bill’s legislative language stated in a UFW letter that will be passed by the California legislature next year. The governor’s amendments got rid of lots of the bill’s teeth, deleting phrases and processes around the “employer’s liability” and collective bargaining, removing agreements regarding a “labor peace compact” that would have included the employer agreeing to not engage in various forms of union-busting, erasing key aspects of the vote-by-mail process, as well as limiting the amount of card-check petitions that could be allowed for the next five years and more. Newsom also added to the bill a portion about “includ[ing] a statement of the entire economic value of the collective bargaining agreement,” which could also be used by farm owners to try to use the farm workers’ economic demands, such as for higher pay, against them. Newsom’s amendments show how reluctant he is to truly support farm workers rights and that his interests ultimately lie in protecting the bosses and their profits over the workers’ basic necessities. Even with the amendments, AB 2183 is still a huge advancement in furthering farm workers’ rights to organize, and will open the door for greater farm worker union struggles to come.

Despite these amendments and the fact that Newsom used the signing of the bill as an opportunity for his political aspirations and career, the pressure the governor and the Democratic Party leadership felt from the working class standing in solidarity together fighting for this bill for months was what truly won this victory.

Members of the PSL in Sacramento marched in solidarity with the farm workers on the last leg of the march to the state capitol and also provided support at the UFW vigil, donating cases of water, Gatorade, tamales, pan dulce and medical packets. 

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