In 1976, César Chávez and his United Farm Workers union placed Proposition 14 on the California ballot. Its goal was to ensure that farm workers would have secret ballots when deciding whether they wanted to be represented by a union.
A UFW flier explained why it’s so important for farm workers to be allowed to vote in secrecy:
“For eleven heartbreaking years farm workers in California have been struggling for the right to a decent life for themselves and their children. And the right to vote in secret elections for a union of their choice. Last year, at last, a law was passed and a Farm Labor Board created to see that the elections were honest. Farm workers rushed to vote.
“But the big corporate growers didn’t like the results of the elections, so they put pressure on a small group of state legislators and cut off funds for the Board. The result: no more elections. No more law and justice in the fields. An invitation to the growers to go back to child labor, spraying pesticides on workers, beating up farm worker organizers.
“That’s why Proposition 14 is so important. The people themselves can now guarantee the right of farm workers to vote in secret elections — a right that can’t be taken away by lobbying pressures by corporate growers.”
Prop. 14 was backed by religious leaders, unions and Democratic politicians, including San Francisco Mayor George Moscone, Los Angeles Mayor Tom Bradley and a much-younger Gov. Jerry Brown.
In his endorsement, Brown wrote, “I will vote yes on 14 because it is right. Because it saves taxpayers money and it will bring peace and the rule of law to the fields of California. Because it will serve farmers, farm workers and all the people of California.”
It turned out that Prop. 14 was defeated by a 2-1 margin after a strong opposition campaign. Funding was later restored to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which oversees union elections. And legislation has been passed to ensure that wages and working conditions in the fields have improved considerably in the past 35 years.
Ironically, that has resulted in a decreased interest among farm workers in belonging to a union. The UFW’s membership, which was once more than 70,000 in the 1970s, is now down to about 5,000.
As a result, and even more ironically, the UFW has sponsored “card check” legislation in Sacramento that would result in farm workers losing the right to keep secret their vote on whether to unionize. This will lead to an increase in UFW membership through intimidation and coercion of farm workers who simply want to put in a day’s work and not have a percentage of their wage siphoned off for union dues.
The bill, AB 104, easily passed the Legislature due to overwhelming Democratic support, and now awaits a signature from the same Jerry Brown who once worked with Chávez to keep balloting secret. Chávez died in 1993, and we have to wonder if he’s now spinning in his grave. Brown has not yet signed AB 104. We hope that he will let the bill die.