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Jerry Brown’s card-check bill veto surprises both sides

California capitol
New laws took effect in California on Jan. 1.

For almost 40 years, California farmworkers have had the right to secret ballot unionization elections.

The governor who championed that right surprised everyone when he vetoed a bill that would make it far easier for workers to unionize.

Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed the so-called 'card-check' bill that would have allowed farmworkers to select union representation simply by signing a card. It would have replaced the secret ballot.

Farmers lobbied mightily to turn back the legislation and convince Brown to veto it. The veto was a victory that ranks close to the triumph several years back when the taxes on farm equipment and agricultural fuel were rescinded due to a herculean lobbying effort. Passage of the card-check law would have created heightened union organizing efforts by a floundering United Farm Workers of America.

It was a surprising and shocking veto, since it was Brown, in his first term 36 years ago, who signed into law the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. He said in a veto message that the card-check bill would alter the framework of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. He promised to review the Ag Labor Act, so card-check is not off the table, but it has been shoved into a far corner.

The 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act gave wings to the United Farm Workers of America, which eventually reach 100,000 members. However, that number has plummeted to less than 20,000 today. The card-check rule would have breathed new life into the UFW.

Other unions like the Teamsters came in to challenge UFW, and growers simply increased wages and benefits to stave off unionization. UFW became unnecessary.

There are about 450,000 agricultural workers in California.

Veto of card-check in California will have an impact far beyond California borders. Passage of a card-check law in the most populous state in the nation would have resurrected a federal card-check effort. Six years ago unions pressed Congress for a federal card-check law, but the movement faltered. However, unions have not given up on it and have sued some states considering a law against card-check unionization.

Brown’s veto is surely a blow to pro card-check advocates.

When Brown was elected last fall to his second shot as California governor, many conservatives and Republicans were fearful of a repeat of the 1970s “Governor Moonbeam” era when the youngest governor ever elected turned the state upside down.

However, lobbyists and others who spend considerable time in Sacramento said the current Gov. Brown is more reflective and pragmatic than the former Gov. Brown. Not surprising, he is also definitely more politically savvy than recent predecessors. He has decades of political experience. He has even kept his campaign promises.

The card-check law veto is only one indication of a changed Gov. Brown. A few weeks ago he tossed out a state budget that the Democratic-controlled state legislature passed and expected him to sign. He rejected it partly because it was another smoke-and-mirror budget like Brown’s predecessor had signed. Those only compounded the state’s growing multi-billion debt. He held out for a more balanced budget and a ballot initiative to get California’s voters to approve an extension of state vehicle licensing fees and a 1 percent sales tax. He did not get the ballot initiative, but he did get a balanced budget.

He was the first California governor in 100 years to veto a state budget passed by his own party.

He passionately wanted the ballot initiative to extend the taxes and lobbied hard to get a few Republicans to side with him. He did not get any takers. Rather than hold the state hostage until he got the ballot initiative votes, he went to Plan B, regardless of how much he did not want to. He forced his own party to live up to their responsibilities to come up with a balanced budget. There are some questionable revenue provisions in the budget he did sign, but it is closer to a balanced state budget than the state has seen in a long time.

Farmworkers and others were hopeful that Brown would sign the card-check bill. Latinos represent almost 40 percent the state's total population and are one of the fastest-growing ethnic groups in California. The governor received 64 percent of the Latino vote last year, according to exit polls. However, Brown’s veto was not anti-Latino. Brown is also definitely not anti-union. Card-check was a bad law.

The card-check idea is unpalatable to the Democratic voting process. The idea of a union organizer delivering cards for workers to sign in homes smacks of coercion and intimidation and any reasonable Californian, Latino or otherwise, understands that.

Brown also turned his back on political cronyism. When he vetoed the bill, he said no to the likes of former U.S. House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Los Angeles mayor Antonio Villaraigosa and refused to sign what he knew was bad legislation.

He did what was right with the rejected budget. Not only was the first budget robbing Peter to pay Paul, but Democrats had the audacity to pass a budget that increased local sales tax rates without the vote of the local governments. Brown said, sorry, that is illegal. The Democratic legislature was setting Brown up for its failures and he knew it. If he had signed the first budget, the Democrats in the legislature could have passed the blame by saying, “The governor signed the budget.” Brown did not bite.

Political observers say the California governor is still a bit flighty. He can flit from one idea to the other. However, they also say what most who know Brown have long understood; he is very intelligent and insightful.

It is a long way until he exits his second stop in the governor’s office. So far, he has not fortunately lived up to his past reputation.

It would be a surprise for Jerry Brown to get a political endorsement from a mainline agricultural group. However, Brown has let it be known he is willing to make political deals that would be win-win votes for his agenda and agriculture.

Brown, agriculture and business won big by killing the card-check bill.

TAGS: Legislative
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