A high-profile bill to help the United Farm Workers union secure contracts with growers has hit a roadblock in a California Assembly committee that's ordinarily very friendly to union-sponsored legislation.
The measure, Senate Bill 25, had cleared the Senate easily -- not surprisingly, since its author, Sacramento Democrat Darrell Steinberg, is the Senate's president pro tem.
However, it got just three votes Wednesday in the Assembly Labor and Employment Committee -- one short of the four required -- as two Democrats on the committee refused to vote, including Salinas Assemblyman Luis Alejo, who has worn support for farmworkers' interests on his sleeve throughout his political career.
Mario Martinez, the UFW's chief counsel, described SB 25 as a "minor change" to legislation passed 10 years ago to provide for mediation of farm labor contract disputes. It would empower the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to order a mediated settlement of any dispute and make it more difficult for its decisions to be taken to court.
But farmers and their organizations, opposed to the bill, said it would be a major change that, in effect, would bar farmworkers from voting on contracts that could be imposed by a mediator.
Reedley fruit grower Dan Gerawan, who has 5,000 employees, said the UFW won an election at his operation in 1990, but the union refused to negotiate a contract, then recently sought mediation that he said could result in a contract his workers would not be allowed to approve or reject, even though few of them were on his payroll in 1990 and and took part in the original representation election.
"Mandatory mediation would become a perpetual event" if SB 25 becomes law, he said.
Alejo didn't speak during the hearing, but in an interview Thursday, he expressed agreement with Gerawan and other opponents that the measure would undermine workers' ability to vote on contracts that affect them and impose a too-high threshold for judicial review of the board's mediation orders.
"I did not see any compelling case": to alter the existing mediation system, Alejo continued, also complaining that the UFW's representatives had shunned an opportunity to speak to him about his concerns before the hearing.
Updated at 12:10 p.m. to include Assemblyman Luis Alejo's comments.
PHOTO: A farmworker picks through sweet potatoes near Turlock on Friday, Sept. 14, 2007. The Sacramento Bee/ Brian Baer