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Why Did Jerry Brown Veto the Farm Worker Bill?

In any real biography of Jerry Brown, the farm workers are not only a big chapter, they are shot through the entire story. Yet, he vetoed the bill.
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It seemed very counter-intuitive. But was it?

Late on the evening of June 28th, in a move with major national labor implications, Brown vetoed card check legislation sought by his old allies, the United Farm Workers, authored by state Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg.

This would have allowed certification of the union as the bargaining agent for workers at a given location or set of locations once a majority of workers there signed cards authorizing the union to represent them. The UFW says this is necessary because growers have too many opportunities to intimidate farm workers into voting against unionization.

Many were surprised by Brown's veto, given his long history with the farm worker movement. Which is more extensive than has been widely reported.

The UFW has been a staple of every one of Brown's campaigns, an immediate endorser which has frequently provided instant ground troops. When Cesar Chavez died in 1993, I remember talking with Brown as he helped carry Chavez's casket in the long funeral procession. Brown spoke later, and old girlfriend Linda Ronstadt appeared.

In any real biography of Jerry Brown, the farm workers are not only a big chapter, they are shot through the entire story. Yet, he vetoed the bill.

Brown, in a veto message which you can view here, noted his central role in the 1975 creation of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act -- which made it possible for the union to flourish for a time -- and said that he is "not yet convinced" that the "far-reaching proposals" of card check are justified. He called for a wide-ranging examination of the issue, in which he pledged to participate extensively.

"SB 104 is indeed a drastic change and I appreciate the frustrations that have given rise to it," Brown wrote. "But, I am not yet convinced that the far reaching proposals of this bill -- which alter in a significant way the guiding assumptions of the ALRA -- are justified. Before restructuring California's carefully crafted agricultural relations labor law, it is only right that the legislature consider legal provisions that more faithfully track its original framework."

This is not the first time that the UFW has sought major adjustments to the original Farm Labor Act, worked out in marathon sessions by Brown and LA Congressman Howard Berman, then the state Assembly majority leader. After flourishing for a time in its wake, the UFW encountered many difficulties, one of them being growers stonewalling negotiations after the union won worker representation elections.

There are those who will say that the UFW has had internal problems which have caused it to under-perform as a union. I'm aware of those issues, but I'll cut to the chase and tell you that, in my view, those issues are not as relevant as the unique challenges they face.

In 2002, the UFW moved for legislation to require mediation and arbitration in stalled negotiations. Then Governor Gray Davis, Brown's chief of staff when the Farm Labor Act was enacted, wasn't convinced. So the union staged a summertime march up the Central Valley to pressure Davis into signing the bill, a march I covered along its way.

Here's some of what I wrote at the time, involving conversations with such current players as UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta, UFW president Arturo Rodriguez, Gray Davis, and Jerry Brown.

"This is a march for the conscience of one man," says Huerta, who has known Davis for as long as he has been in politics, even before Davis was chief of staff to then-Governor Jerry Brown, whose Farm Labor Act of 1975 improved conditions and gave the union the opportunity to organize and bargain with growers. "Jerry had a harder choice to make than Gray Davis," says Rodriguez. "He created the framework where none existed. The governor only has to make it work better than it has."

For amusement during the long, sweltering day, I called several top Davis aides, asking if they want to talk to Huerta, Rodriguez, Pulaski (Art Pulaski, head of the California Labor Federation) or Villaraigosa (then former state Assembly speaker and now Los Angeles Mayor Antonio Villaraigosa). "Uh, no, that's okay," says one Davisite who answered his cell phone. The others don't return their voice mails. ...

So does the man who helped Davis immeasurably in his career, his old boss, former-Governor-turned-Oakland-Mayor Jerry Brown. He is not on the march this week, because he is leading a delegation from the U.S. Conference of Mayors to the United Nations Earth Summit in Johannesburg, South Africa, where he will talk, among other things, about his support for L.A. Assemblywoman Fran Pavley's anti-global warming bill.

Brown called Davis last week about the farm-labor bill, which he supports. What did they say? "I'm not getting into all that," says Brown, who along with Davis has assiduously avoided turning their relationship into a soap opera. But Brown, along with other political experts, notes that Davis' ties to agribusiness are largely circumstantial. Republican challenger Bill Simon is "nowhere," says Brown, "so ag has nowhere to go. The Republicans were more competitive when I was running. Ag was always a bulwark of the Republican Party when it was highly viable. They're some of the most conservative in the state. How much is Gray raising anyway?" Told that my estimate is north of $60 million (of which agriculture's share is very small), Brown lets out a low "Wow." Pausing for a moment, Brown notes, "You have to balance what you need to do against what you should do."

Dolores Huerta had been very ill not long before, and should not have been marching under the Valley sun, much less fasting. Davis was made aware of all this, and was aghast at the thought of being responsible for a martyr.

So the UFW got its bill, but couldn't do much with it. Even though new Governor Arnold Schwarzenegger agreed to accept Davis's appointees to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, supported the mediation bill, and helped on some occupational safety and health issues, doing some events with the UFW, he wouldn't sign card check.

As I understand it, in the AFL-CIO view, the farm workers are the camel's nose under the tent flap on card check. If they're in, it becomes harder to keep other classes of workers out. Can you say that a domestic worker is any less potentially exploited, for example? Then what about janitors? And so on.

More to the point, can you, as a Democratic elected official, say that, once you have made card check a reality for one set of workers?

Ironically, that hasn't really been much at issue since Democrats won control of the U.S. Senate in November 2006. Though the then Democratic House passed a card check bill, the Senate never did. Barack Obama ran as a pro-card check candidate, but the bill continued to go nowhere.

But if card check can be made a reality in the nation's largest state, others may follow.

If Brown, after a period of examination, determines that his original approach on farm labor -- which worked for a time and then did not -- has to be updated, he can look to a storied figure from his own past for guidance.

When Brown was much younger, he went duck hunting with his father and another governor of California. A man by the name of Earl Warren, a moderate Republican who was so popular he used to win both the Republican and Democratic nominations.

He and Jerry Brown are the only two California governors elected to three terms in the state's history, though Warren's three terms were all in a row. In the midst of his third term as governor, Warren did something that will enable Brown to become the longest-serving governor in California's history. He accepted the appointment of President Dwight Eisenhower to become chief justice of the U.S. Supreme Court.

And in that capacity, former California Governor-turned-U.S. Chief Justice Earl Warren found card check to be a constitutional means for workers to select a union as their bargaining agent.

"Almost from the inception of the Act, then," Warren wrote, "it was recognized that a union did not have to be certified as the winner of a Board election to invoke a bargaining obligation; it could establish majority status by other means... by showing convincing support, for instance, by a union-called strike or strike vote, or, as here, by possession of cards signed by a majority of the employees authorizing the union to represent them for collective bargaining purposes."

But in the meantime, as Brown said in 2002, "You have to balance what you need to do against what you should do."

And what Brown needs to do is finishing solving California's chronic budget crisis. He views that as Job One through Five, having barely talked about anything else during his first six months as governor. Brown's gotten most of the way there through big budget cuts, but was stymied by cultish Republican opposition to taxes from solving the rest of the problem.

Now he's looking to the 2012 elections and is trying to forge an alliance with business as well as labor. Many business organizations supported Brown's budget plan. But, frankly, business failed to deliver any Republican legislative votes for Brown.

Can they be more effective in supporting a consensus ballot package? Can business and labor work together with Brown in forging such a package?

We'll see.

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