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Farmworkers, Napa-Sonoma trade groups react to new California unionization law

Advocates for farmworker rights in the North Coast are cheering a newly inked compromise in Sacramento that could make it easier for vineyard and other California agricultural workers to unionize.

“This is really great news that farmworkers are finally getting recognized for all the incredible hard work that they do to keep our entire economy and industry happening,” said Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs With Justice, a nonprofit group that advocates for farmworker rights.

“Farmworkers have been on the front lines of climate change impacts, including fires and drought and extreme heat. It's going to be really important that farmworkers have a voice as these impacts get worse.”

Gervacio Pen᷉a Lopez, a farmworker for 15 years in California, marched in Sacramento recently in support of Assembly Bill 2183, which includes an option for workers to mail in votes on unionization, in addition to on-site elections.

“As campesinos (farmworkers), we've been asking for this for a long time. This might seem like a big thing for some of the employers, but this is really about us having basic rights to protect the majority of us farmworkers,” Pen᷉a Lopez said through a translator.

He works in Sonoma County vineyards via multiple labor contractors.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Aug. 28 signed AB 2183 after his office had signaled that he would veto the legislation, according to the Associated Press.

But Newsom came around to supporting the bill after hammering out with leaders from the California Labor Federation and United Farm Workers new language about election integrity that is to be addressed in a cleanup bill in the next legislative session.

Local farming industry groups criticized Newsom for his about-face.

Dayna Ghiradelli, new executive director for Sonoma County Farm Bureau, also faulted Newsom for rushing the process.

“It is surprising that Gov. Newsom signed a bill that he himself said is bad policy,” Ghiradelli said. “He simply should have followed the lawmaking tract by vetoing this bill in order to fix it and create good policy next year. His actions are unprecedented.”

Ryan Klobas, CEO of Napa County Farm Bureau, said the voting provisions in AB 2183 — as it passed into law and before any fix-it legislation — could put a fair election into question.

“It lends itself to the potential for fraud, and it stacks the deck against the employer,” Klobas said.

Supporters of the bill said that the changes would help guard farmworkers against employer intimidation before, during and after the vote.

North Bay Jobs With Justice has been actively pursuing several goals for local farmworkers, including hazard pay amid wildfire smoke, average pay of $25 an hour and translation of safety information into Indigenous languages. The group advocated for rules for how farmworkers would operate in fire evacuation zones, and the Sonoma County Board of Supervisors at the end of August agreed to a framework for that.

Bell Alper said the group plans to pursue hazard pay provisions in surrounding North Coast counties and in Sacramento.

Klobas said such questions have been hotly debated for years, and he pointed to a provision in the proposed fix-it legislative language that would force a revisiting of the changes anyway.

“Former employers are now going to face an awkward choice when dealing with their employees before the initiation of a process to seek union representation,” Klobas said.

“They're going to forfeit their free speech rights to discuss the reality of unionization with their employees and also deal with the issue of private property rights.”

State law giving union organizers certain access to private property to talk with farmworkers was dealt a blow in the June 2021 U.S. Supreme Court ruling in Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid. The majority decided that the state law amounted to a taking of private property without compensation.

Klobas said union representation among Napa Valley farmworkers is low.

United Farm Workers only has a few labor-representation contacts in the North Coast, according to its website. Napa County contracts are with C. Mondavi & Family for its CK Mondavi brand primarily and with St. Supery Winery for its Dollarhide Estate Vineyard.

In Sonoma County, the union has contracts with Balleto and Gallo of Sonoma.

UFW didn’t respond to requests for comment about its North Coast membership.

UC Merced told news agency CalMatters early this year that agricultural union membership in California has fallen from a peak in 1970 to “statistically zero” in 2022 because of challenges with organizing.

Pen᷉a Lopez pushed back on assertions from trade groups that North Coast farmworkers already are highly paid.

“Even If some people say that we get paid well as farmworkers in Sonoma County, we still deserve the right to be able to organize and to represent ourselves and to have representation and in times of emergency, so that we know we can really have dignity,” he said.

Jeff Quackenbush covers wine, construction and real estate. Reach him at jquackenbush@busjrnl.com or 707-521-4256.

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