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November 11, 2021

STATE GOVERNMENT AFFAIRS: Big 2021 Legislative Successes on Labor

By Matthew Allen, Vice President, State Government Affairs

The fall season is the perfect time to take a moment to pause and reflect about the state of the agricultural industry over the past two years.

In 2020, our industry faced head-on what seemed at the time to be almost insurmountable challenges with the COVID-19 pandemic. Farmers stoically braced themselves to grapple with lost revenues from the closure of restaurants and schools. They purchased millions of dollars of personal protective equipment to ensure the safety of their workforce. Through it all, farmers remained optimistic; planned for the future and made decisions on how best to manage the changing landscape into 2021.

Earlier this year, just as the economy was starting to recover from the pandemic, the intensity of our current drought conditions hit us with unprecedented ferocity. The extreme nature of this drought has led to more fallowing of crops as growers make difficult decisions on how best to manage their operations with depleting water resources. In short, agriculture in California has seen more than its fair share of challenges over the past couple of years. That said, it’s high time for some good news. We have it for you.

WG helped to lead a broad advocacy campaign of agricultural and business organizations in the fight against AB 616 which was sponsored by the United Farm Workers (UFW). This bill was the latest attempt by the union to pass card check legislation. Card check had previously been attempted and was vetoed by both Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger and Governor Jerry Brown. AB 616 was authored by Assemblymember Mark Stone. The author and sponsors made the repeated claim that AB 616 amounted to nothing more than the creation of a mail-in voting process for farmworkers.

This was fiction. In practice, the bill would have essentially gutted the fundamental protections in the Agricultural Labor Relations Act that provide the opportunity for farmworkers to express their choice with respect to union representation through a secret ballot election process that is free from undue influence and coercion. Union leaders would be able to utilize a ballot card in lieu of the secret election. Unions could go to an employee’s home, fill out the ballot card for them, have the employee sign the card and then pocket the card for up to 12 months.

Furthermore, the union wouldn’t have to approach all employees of an agricultural employer. They could pick and choose who they would ask to fill out the card. This would be extraordinarily problematic since all employees should remain free to vote their conscience in a secret ballot election where neither the employer nor the union can influence or observe their vote.

WG was also heavily opposed to a bonding requirement in the bill that would have required employers to file an appeal bond with the ALRB when appealing make-whole, backpay, and other monetary award orders made by the board. This would be a huge barrier to entry to have the “right” to an appeal.

AB 616 passed through the Legislature but was ultimately vetoed by Governor Gavin Newsom. The advocacy of WG members, WG staff and the hard work of allied agricultural organizations were all crucial elements in the ultimate outcome of 616.

Another hard-fought win this year was stopping AB 857 by Assembly Member Ash Kalra in the California State Senate. AB 857 was substantially similar bill to SB 1102 that Governor Newsom vetoed last year. AB 857, sponsored by the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation, would expand the definition of “voluntary” and “mandated” travel time, as decided by the California Supreme Court in Morillion v. Royal Packing (2000). Passage of AB 857 would lead to great confusion about travel time pay and would inevitably lead to higher costs for our industry at precisely the time that we are in the middle of recovering from the COVID-19 pandemic and dealing with the drought. AB 857 is now a two-year bill and might be reconsidered next year. WG will be working closely with our allied partners to advocate against any further movement of this bill through the legislative process.

In addition to these wins, several other labor-related bills were held in the Assembly this year. Most notably amongst those is a bill by Assemblymember Lorena Gonzalez that would increase the required number of paid sick leave days from three to five days. WG played an active role in the coalition to sidetrack this legislation in the Assembly. It’s now a two-year bill.

All in all, there were several legislative wins this year on labor. Our industry should be especially proud of all the efforts and countless hours that were spent in opposition to both AB 616 and AB 857.