Dozens of farmworkers in California are in the midst of a historic 24-day, 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento for the right to participate in union elections that are free from intimidation by employers. Members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union began the trip toward the California state capitol on Aug. 3, and they are being joined along the route by allies in select towns.
The group is marching to convince Gov. Gavin Newsom to sign bill AB 2183, which would allow farmworkers to vote by mail-in ballot to form a union, if they so choose. Because the ballots could be mailed from home instead of submitted at their place of employment, organizers believe farmworkers’ votes are less likely to be influenced by their bosses.
“We want the right to union representation and to vote from home or mail, like any other vote,” Lourdes Cardenas, 59, and member of the UFW for the past 15 years, told TIME in Spanish. “It’s a right that we deserve as citizens and as workers.”
Union members have been advocating for this type of legislation for over a year now, and in September 2021 came close to passing a similar bill, AB 616. That proposal passed through both branches of the state legislature, but Newsom vetoed it, claiming the bill contained “various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards” in a public statement.
Marchers are now traversing nearly the identical route Cesar Chavez took in 1966 when California farmworkers first brought awareness to the unjust conditions they faced. Chavez was a co-founder of the UFW, which signed its first labor agreement as a result of the march. As the workers once again make an arduous journey, some are reflecting on their original demands.
Roberto Bustos, captain of the 1966 farmworkers’ march that led to the UFW’s first union contract, joined this year’s marchers for part of their route. “Again, the farmworkers are still not getting their federal protections, their rights,” he said in a video recorded by the UFW. “So we have to keep on marching.”
Why voting by mail matters
Voting for unionization, by mail or otherwise, is one way that farmworkers can advocate for better working conditions and labor protections. But agricultural workers remain particularly vulnerable to union-related intimidation because of their precarious immigration status, says Catherine Fisk, director of the UC Berkeley Center for Law and Work. Fwd.us, a bipartisan political organization, reports that undocumented farmworkers make up 50% of the agricultural labor workforce.
Fisk also notes that their limited literacy has an impact, as over half of all farmworkers say they either do not speak English at all, or only a little, according to the National Center for Farmworker Health.
“Being able to vote by mail at home enables them to get assistance from a family member or a friend who is literate in the language that the ballot is printed in,” Fisk tells TIME.
Why farmworkers lack better labor protections
During the pandemic, the U.S. was swept by a wave of unionization efforts at big employers like Starbucks and Amazon. But farmworkers have not had similar success because they have been historically excluded from federal labor protections, such as the 1935 National Labor Relations Act, which prohibits employers from firing a worker for their involvement or support of a labor union.
Agricultural workers’ did not earn the right to unionize until four decades later, in 1975. But even now their labor protections are headed by the separate, state-level agency, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB).
The bill that marchers are pushing for, AB 2183, which has 50 legislators signed on in support, outlines a method of union voting akin to political elections that allow absentee ballots. Farmworkers would be able to decide between voting at a polling place, by mail, or by dropping it off with the ALRB. This would bring it in line with how union votes are conducted by the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB), the federal agency that protects the labor rights of most private sector employees.
What employer intimidation looks like
It’s illegal to intimidate workers who try to form a union. But voting while at work made it more likely that farmworkers would vote the way their employers wanted, organizers say—typically, in opposition to a union.
A 2013 case against Gerawan Farming—one of the largest peach and grape growers—is an example of the kind of intimidation farmworkers face, Capital and Main reports. Gerwan stalled negotiations with the UFW, enlisting supervisors and other anti-union workers to coerce farmworkers to sign a petition against the union, shutting down production, and blocking entry to fields until they did so.
When the time came for a union election in the coming months, workers voted against forming a union.
“Even when an election can be held” there is an environment of fear, Elizabeth Strater, the Director of Strategic Campaigns at UFW, says. “It’s just so difficult for farmworkers to cross that final hurdle…The barriers are so enormous.”
And as Strater suggests, the evidence of difficulty is in the numbers. UFW’s current membership rests at less than 8,000 union members nationwide, although California alone boasts more than 400,000 farmworkers.
The opposition to AB 2183
Western Growers, an organization that represents local and regional family farmers across four states, opposes the bill and says this legislation would undermine the current secret ballot election process, which allows farmworkers to vote privately without any management, supervisors, or union representatives present. Voting by mail would eliminate a worker’s right to a ballot that “is free from coercion from any party,” says Matthew Allen, Vice President, State Government Affairs at Western Growers, in an email statement to TIME.
Fisher Phillips, a labor and employment law firm that represents employers, alleges the bill could cause voter fraud because union members could help translate or fill out ballot cards, meaning they could prefill employee’s cards.
Fisk says that it’s the same debate that happens during political elections. Democrats urge that “making it easier to vote by allowing voting by mail is the way to go, that voter suppression is a more serious problem than voter fraud,” Fisk says. “And here growers are taking the position on the other side.”
Read More: U.S. Labor Unions Are Having a Moment
In California, where all registered voters receive a vote-by-mail ballot, using absentee ballots is common.
For now, marchers are taking to the streets amid devastating heat waves and temperatures soaring over 100 degrees. Although Cardenas says the walk has been challenging, she feels the support of her faith as marchers carry an image of la Virgen de Guadalupe, a Mexican and Catholic symbol of hope and strength.
“No matter how hard these streets are, she won’t let us fall,” Cardenas says.
The farmworkers will reach the capital on Aug. 26.
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