Can farmworkers unionize without deportation threat? New law aims to make it so

Agricultural workers pick strawberries and directly pack them in the field in Salinas, California. Photo by Shutterstock.

Gov. Gavin Newsom on Wednesday signed a bill that would make it easier for California farmworkers to vote in union elections. The governor initially fought the legislation. President Joe Biden, Vice President Kamala Harris, and House Speaker Nancy Pelosi had all urged him to sign it. Members of the United Farm Workers (UFW) had also held a 24-hour vigil outside the capital since August. 

“What they did yesterday is something entirely unusual in the world of the capital, which is that he signed the bill as it is. … But then they did a very long memo, promising to come back and do a new bill to fix it to his recommendations in the coming year. So what's in there right now is not what will actually likely be in there in the end,” says LA Times Columnist Anita Chabria

She continues, “What this bill is going to do, if it goes through as Newsom wants it to … they just need a majority of folks [farmworkers] to say that they want the union in order to start forming that. … They can do that by signing a petition or by signing cards.” 

She notes that many undocumented people started becoming farmworkers over the past decades, which created vulnerability. 

“What we saw happening is when people working in the fields started … to unionize, that some were being deported. That threat of deportation was being used in specific instances to stop union drives. And the whole goal of UFW was to create a system that was safer for people to organize without that threat of deportation.”

This bill accomplishes that, Chabria says, and it could even help cannabis workers unionize.