By CAROL RYAN DUMAS
Legislation passed by the California lawmakers would do away with the right of farm workers to a state-supervised, secret-ballot vote on whether to unionize.
Instead, organizers would only need to submit cards signed by a majority of workers for unions to be certified.
SB104, the card-check bill, supported by United Farm Workers of America, was delivered on June 16 to Gov. Jerry Brown, who has 12 days to take action.
Four similar bills have been passed by the Legislature in the past. All were vetoed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger.
Representatives of California's dairy industry worry about the possibility of intimidation, threats and even violence against workers to pressure them to sign the cards.
"It's very concerning, you'd be able to circumvent that democratic principle of electing through secret ballot," said Michael Marsh, executive director of Western Dairymen's Association.
He's witnessed intense harassment at the hands of union workers and said, "I would clearly not want those people showing up on my place."
Employee-employer relations on dairies are working well and won't benefit from interjecting a union in the scenario, he said.
"It would complicate things for dairymen to have to abide by the letter of a contract," he said.
A union could dictate how a dairyman runs his business and erode the relationship between employer and employees, he said.
It could also bode ill for employees, who could end up with decreased wages and benefits through union-employer bargaining. Employees would also forfeit some of their wages in the form of union dues being deducted from their check, an issue they may not understand, he said.
But the bottom line is unions just aren't necessary; there are regulatory and legal processes in place to protect workers, he said. And there's nothing wrong with the current system of secret-ballot elections if workers choose to unionize, he said.
Dairymen are concerned that the bill would turn the process away from a democratic exercise to a highly pressurized one, said Rob Vandenheuvel, manager of the California Milk Producers Council.
It would become a public process of signing signature cards, and unions can apply tremendous pressure without the secret ballot, he said.
"Dairymen don't have a problem with workers' rights to unionize. They are concerned unions can come in and pressure their workers to do something they wouldn't otherwise do," he said.
"No one's excited about a union coming in and interfering in their dealings with their employees, but that's not the issue. The problem is the process, if they're pressured into it," he said.
Dairy workers aren't likely to want to unionize, said Bill Van Dam, CEO of the Alliance of Western Milk Producers. Dairies typically pay more than other industries, and workers are well treated and like the full-time aspect of working on a dairy year-round.
Dairymen do have concerns over how easy the bill would make it unionize, however, he said.
"It just becomes a piece of cake," he said.
Marsh, Vandenheuvel and Van Dam agree the bill would only benefit unions.
"It's more about empowering unions and less about empowering ag workers," Vandenheuvel said.