Gov. Jerry Brown vetoed legislation tonight that would have let farmworkers unionize more easily, despite intense pressure from fellow Democrats and labor allies who considered Brown their best chance in years to pass the bill.
The veto came just about one hour before midnight, when the legislation would have become law.
The veto touched off an emotional scene outside Brown's office, where about a dozen lawmakers and 100 farmworkers and supporters called unsuccessfully for Brown to come out.
In the middle of the crowd, United Farm Workers president Arturo Rodriguez took a call from Brown, telling the Democratic governor his remarks sounded a "little hollow." After getting off the phone, Rodriguez told activists in English and Spanish that Brown had vetoed the bill and that the governor had sided with agribusiness.
Some women in the crowd started crying, while Assembly Speaker John A. Pérez called Brown's action a "setback" and urged UFW members to keep fighting for the bill.
A California Highway Patrol officer said Brown was not inside the office at the time.
The so-called "card-check" legislation would have provided unionizing farmworkers an alternative to the secret ballot, letting unions organize them instead through signed petition cards
Brown said in his veto message that the bill is a "drastic change" to the state's agricultural labor relations act, and he said, "I appreciate the frustrations that have given rise to it."
However, he wrote, "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 labor law, it is only right that the legislature consider legal provisions that more faithfully track its original framework."
Farmworkers pressed Brown for days before the veto was announced. In rallies at the Capitol, they prayed, chanted "Si, se puede" and held signs that said they were "fasting for fair treatment of farmworkers."
Former Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, a Republican, vetoed the legislation four times in four years. But Brown, a Democrat with longstanding ties to labor, was considered more likely to sign it.
Brown signed historic farm labor legislation when he was governor before, from 1975 to 1983, and he vetoed legislation that would have weakened the power of farmworker unions. He spoke during last year's gubernatorial campaign about his personal relationship with Cesar Chavez, the late labor leader.
The United Farm Workers union brought to the Capitol a wooden chair that belonged to Chavez, resting Chavez's jacket on its back.
Senate Bill 104 had been approved along partisan lines, with Democrats in favor and Republicans opposed. Opponents argued the bill would give excessive influence to unions.
The California Chamber of Commerce included it on its list of "job killer" bills.
Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, moved the bill to Brown's desk during a politically difficult time. Before reaching a budget pact with Democratic leaders this week, Brown was trying to negotiate a budget deal with Republican lawmakers on tax extensions. The farmworker bill was opposed by business interests supportive of Brown's budget plan, but supported by labor groups and Democrats in the Legislature.
The veto came just minutes after the Legislature finished voting on the delicate budget pact.
About a dozen Democratic lawmakers gathered outside Brown's office door before the veto was announced, trying to go inside to meet with him. A California Highway Patrol officer told the lawmakers the office was closed.
Earlier in the afternoon, Democratic lawmakers and their staffers brought chairs and couches down from their offices for the farmworkers to use.
In a written statement, Steinberg said, "The Governor missed a historic opportunity to help the hardest working people in California improve their standard of living and working conditions."
Bee staff writer Kevin Yamamura contributed to this report.
Editor's note: This post was corrected to reflect that UFW president Arturo Rodriguez took a call from Gov. Jerry Brown and that Rodriguez, not Pérez, said the governor sided with agribusiness.