Gavin Newsom signs farmworker union law after pressure from UFW, Biden and more Democrats

Gov. Gavin Newsom signed a law on Wednesday that will allow farmworkers to vote by mail in union elections, one year after he vetoed a similar version of the bill.

Newsom joined labor leaders at a United Farm Workers vigil in front of the Capitol to sign the law, Assembly Bill 2183. He then handed a copy of the bill to Xochitl Nunez, a farmworker from Orosi.

“California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” Newsom said in a written statement. “Our state has been defined by the heroic activism of farmworkers, championed by American icons like Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, and Larry Itliong. California is proud to stand with the next generation of leaders carrying on this movement.”

His signature on the law marks a significant change of course for Newsom, whose office as recently as August said the governor planned to veto the bill unless its supporters agreed to more changes.

Instead, Democrats overwhelmingly passed the bill in Assembly and Senate. UFW, meanwhile led a 335-mile march to the Capitol and drew support from other unions in urging Newsom to support the bill.

President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had also urged Newsom to sign the bill.

“Si, se puede,” UFW said in a tweet after Newsom’s signing.

The governor vetoed a similar measure in 2021, citing technical issues. UFW then held demonstrations at a winery he owns in Napa County, and at the French Laundry, the pricey Napa restaurant where Newsom gathered with friends for a lobbyist’s birthday party during the coronavirus pandemic.

AB 2183, authored by Assemblyman Mark Stone, D-Monterey Bay, gives farmworkers the choice to vote at a physical location or by mailing a representation ballot card to an Agricultural Labor Relations Board office.

After Newsom’s veto last year, Stone negotiated with the governor to address concerns. These amendments included allowing ALRB to handle and mail all ballots and a sunset date of Jan. 1, 2028. That date would end all provisions of the bill, unless later legislation is extended. Stone had said the bill was “90%” of what the governor asked for.

The main sticking point after the Legislature approved the bill was whether growers would be notified about an impending union election. UFW staffers said doing so would allow employers to union bust and take action against workers for organizing, including deporting those who are undocumented. Meanwhile, Newsom’s office said not notifying growers about upcoming union elections went against national labor organizing standards.

The legislation had also faced staunch opposition from the agricultural industry and grower associations. They argued UFW no longer prioritizes organizing and is ineffective in advocating for better working conditions. In its 1970s heyday, the union had 80,000 members in California and other states. According to the U.S. Department of Labor, it now numbers a little over 6,000.

Rob Roy, president and general counsel for Ventura County Agricultural Association, called the union “virtually nonexistent” in August. He pointed to the last five years during which UFW has not successfully filed for an election to represent California farmworkers. The bill would not improve unionization rates, Roy said.