Updated Sept. 29, 1:45 p.m.
After a month-long wait for advocates, Governor Gavin Newsom signed a bill expanding union rights for farmworkers on Wednesday.
Farmworkers and allies had been holding a vigil next to the State Capitol, starting 31 days ago. It followed a 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento in August. The march, organized by the United Farm Workers of America, began as a means to support the bill that would allow farmworkers to vote to unionize by mail rather than just in person.
In the weeks since then, farmworkers and activists kept attention on the issue through rallies and pleas on social media, asking Newsom to sign the bill. The bill attracted nationwide attention and received a stamp of approval from President Joe Biden, who expressed his support in a statement, saying “the least we owe [farmworkers] is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union.”
At the site of the vigil was an altar constructed by advocates. It was decorated with pictures of activists before them, like Cesar Chavez, photos from previous farmworker marches, wooden crosses, chains of flowers and a small statue of the Virgin of Guadalupe. It was atop that altar that Newsom signed the bill, with a crowd of advocates looking on.
Cynthia Burgos was one of the advocates who witnessed Newsom signing the bill. She’s a farmworker who joined the August march at its starting point in Delano, and stayed at the vigil since it began 31 days ago.
She’d given up work time for this, a risk for her, but she said this advocacy work was something she felt she had to do. More than a fear of missing work, she said she was afraid of how she was treated at work on the farm. Now, she said she feels overwhelming relief.
“I know it was worth it because everything that happened is behind us now,” Burgos said in Spanish. “We won. That’s the most important thing.”
Teresa Maldonado, another farmworker from Bakersfield who marched and kept vigil alongside Burgos, said it’s been a long month. Of course, she’s been tired – how could she not be, she said? The August march itself was long and hard.
“There were days where we let our guard down,” she said in Spanish. “All of our feet were full of blisters, our knees bruised – fatigue and exhaustion beat us.”
But now, with their success, Maldonado said she still has the energy to celebrate.
“We have the results right here – it was worth the hardship,” she continued in Spanish. “Yes, we could.”
The governor’s signature came as a surprise to supporters of the legislation. Last year, Newsom vetoed a similar bill. This year, advocates worked with the governor’s office to craft a bill that he would approve. But on the final day of the August march, Newsom said in a statement that he could not support the bill as written.
A representative for Assemblymember Mark Stone, who introduced the legislation, said that the bill’s text has not been altered since Newsom put out his previous statement, as the deadline to introduce amendments had passed. However, amendments may be made to the bill during the next legislative session.
In a press release, the governor’s office said that his administration, the UFW and the California Labor Federation had come up with a supplemental agreement. This agreement will be codified into law next year and is supported by both the administration and the UFW.
Stone said that the signature did not come as a surprise, as negotiations around the bill had been ongoing since January. He knew that Newsom was not satisfied with the bill at the beginning of September, but he said that the “discussions never stopped.”
He said that he’s happy about where those negotiations led them and that the final product was a win for advocates who have been working to push the issue for years.
“Their ability to organize is expressly limited in the way the Agricultural Labor Relations Act is written and the way they've been treated over the years,” Stone said. “So this now, this bill, gives them a tool that they did not have before that almost all other employees do have”
He said that allowing farmworkers to vote to unionize from home, rather than in person, can eliminate pressure or coercion from their employers “that often does happen when they're now trying to organize.”
He added that even if the legislation had not passed this year, he was certain that farmworkers and advocates would not have given up on the issue.
“This was not an issue that was going to go away,” Stone said.
Alicia Cruz, an activist from San Francisco who attended the vigil on the day the bill was signed, agreed with that sentiment. As a mental health worker participating in an open-ended statewide Kaiser strike, she said she felt it necessary to support the farmworkers in their own labor effort.
After Newsom initially voiced concern about the bill’s language in late August, Cruz said she and others organized vigils to support farmworkers in San Francisco, Fresno and Los Angeles. She said that the support never stopped.
“We got to really hand it to them,” Cruz said of the farmworkers’ efforts. “They don't give up.”
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