Gov. Gavin Newsom ended the suspense over a farmworker labor bill by agreeing to sign it two days before deadline and after much prodding by national and state union leaders and President Joe Biden.

Farmworkers in California will have an easier process for forming unions for the next five years under AB 2183, which Newsom signed on Wednesday. The bill lets farm workers vote by mail in union elections, shielding them from potential intimidation from their bosses, says the United Farm Workers, the bill sponsor.

Newsom struck a deal with the UFW and the California Labor Federation to support new legislation next year that would give farmworkers an even simpler option to unionize commonly called card check. It is a victory for labor groups after the governor vetoed similar legislation last year.

Business groups such as the California Chamber of Commerce and the Western Growers Association fiercely opposed this bill. Opponents decried the measure as a move to tilt farm worker union elections in the UFW’s favor.

Newsom earlier this year announced his opposition as well. In response, the UFW staged weeks of advocacy efforts that turned the bill into a rallying point for political progressives at the same time the governor was seeking to elevate his national political profile.

Newsom said Wednesday his concerns about the bill were addressed in the agreement about next year’s legislation.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” he said in a press release.

Supporters said AB 2183 is an effort to ease the path toward collective bargaining, and potentially higher wages, after decades of declining union membership for agricultural workers.

Low unionization

Union representation among California’s farmworkers has dwindled to such a low number that UC Merced researchers told CalMatters this year they couldn’t confidently measure it, and few elections are even held. Labor supporters say that’s because it’s hard organizing when more than half of workers are undocumented immigrants who fear retaliation by their employers.

A 2021 Supreme Court decision effectively kicked union organizers off growers’ property, helping to spur a push for the legislation.

After the signing, the California Labor Federation called the bill “the most consequential private sector organizing bill in our state’s history.”

The farmworker bill provides two options for agricultural employees to unionize: an election process with mail-in ballots in which growers must agree to maintain neutrality, or a simpler process known as “card check,” in which a majority of employees sign cards indicating they support union representation.

Earlier this year Newsom opposed the mail-ballot election proposal over concerns that it made it possible for workers to begin requesting ballots without employers’ knowledge.

But the union said that any stricter of a process opened farmworkers up to potential retaliation; a majority of the workers are undocumented migrants.

The deal Newsom struck with the UFW to amend the process next year averts that fight by simply eliminating the mail-in vote option and leaving the simpler “card check” process. That’s the process by which public employees unionize in California, indicating their preference on a card, an option which many employers strenuously opposed.

“It’s really where we wanted to go from the very beginning,” said the bill’s author, Assemblymember Mark Stone, a Democrat from Santa Cruz. “It took a lot of patience on all sides … But I’m not surprised, because (Newsom) all along wanted to do right by the farmworkers.”

Public pressure

Currently, farmworkers can only vote in union elections that are in-person, usually held on their employers’ property, similar to how other private-sector workers unionize.

AB 2183 expires in five years. The deal to amend the law next year caps the number of card-check unionizations on farms at 75 during those years.

Supporters say the deal was the result of public pressure on Newsom.

The union pressure campaign culminated in a 335-mile march by farmworkers, from Delano to Sacramento, in August to push for Newsom’s signature. A day before the march ended, Newsom announced his continued opposition, despite compromise amendments lawmakers had already approved. The Legislature passed the bill anyway.

Biden over the Labor Day weekend issued a public statement urging Newsom to sign the legislation.

“Farmworkers worked tirelessly and at great personal risk to keep food on America’s tables during the pandemic. In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union.” Biden said.

That came a day before Newsom had signed another union-backed bill for a different low-wage sector. AB 257 will create a council to regulate fast-food restaurant workers’ wages and working conditions. The fast food industry, however, is trying to gather enough signatures for a referendum to overturn the law.

On Monday, the Labor Federation and a group of Latino state officials and lawmakers urged Newsom to sign the farmworker bill, writing in a public letter that the issue was “paramount to Latinos in California and across the country.”

Difficult position

With national speculation about whether Newsom is mulling a presidential run, some observers said the pressure from labor officials and Biden put Newsom in a difficult position.

“It’s pretty rare for a sitting president from your own party to weigh in” on legislation awaiting a governor’s signature, said Andrew Acosta, a Democratic strategist. “But the governor brought some of it on himself. The more he’s out there waving the flag of being the defender of those who are in need, then people can say, ‘What are you doing here in California on this issue that impacts farmworkers?’”

Thad Kousser, University of California San Diego political science professor, said if Newsom vetoed the bill, that would have been “political malpractice” for a governor in any national Democratic primary election.

“Getting Joe Biden to weigh in on this bill on Labor Day has upped the stakes,” he said. “It made it a national issue and signals to Gavin Newsom that he’s going to have to veto this bill every year until he runs for president unless he signs it now.”

It is unclear how many successful union drives the bill will spur on farms. Some workers say they’d like more leverage in dealing with their bosses.

Cynthia Burgos, a 48-year-old farmworker from Bakersfield, picks carrots early in the mornings and onions at night. She said this week she has been sexually assaulted working in the fields and that harassment of female workers is common.

“Every time that we tried to raise concerns about, like, the fields not being in the best conditions to work, they’re always, like, ‘Go do it somewhere else.’ Pretty much saying, ‘We’re gonna fire you,’” Burgos said through a translator.

This summer she marched with the UFW to Sacramento and participated in a month-long vigil outside the Capitol, pushing for Newsom’s signature. She said she wants a union to advocate for protections.