A dozen farmworkers sat in a circle of plastic chairs in a modest living room, listening as a union organizer talked about a bill she said would allow people to organize without fear, rebuild the union and improve conditions in the fields.
The United Farm Workers of America drew national attention when workers led by Cesar Chavez inspired a boycott of table grapes in the 1960s and then forced vineyard owners to sign hundreds of contracts providing better pay and working conditions.
But experts say employer intimidation, high worker turnover and demographic changes have resulted in union membership plummeting in recent decades, despite the problems workers reeled off at the meeting: low or stagnant wages; employers who don't provide shade from the scorching sun; and foremen who rob workers of their pay or prevent them from taking water and bathroom breaks.
The workers in the room were too afraid of reprisals to agree to be named or even quoted individually by The Associated Press, and that fear is one reason union leaders want to change the way workers organize. In 1975, the union fought for workers' right to hold secret ballot elections. Now, in a historic shift, it is backing a California bill that would move organizing efforts off farms, where leaders believe employer intimidation has helped throw elections.
"You're talking about voting on the employer's site, with foremen and supervisors making eye-contact with you after they've alluded to or flat out threatened you with the loss of your job, your housing or calling immigration agents," said Armando Elenes, a UFW vice-president who runs the union's organizing out of Delano. "It takes a lot of strength to even vote."
The bill would allow majority signup elections, also known as card-check. Workers away from the fields would sign and turn in state-issued representation cards. If state labor officials determined the cards had been signed by a majority of workers, they would certify the union without holding an on-site election.
Introduced by Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, the bill is awaiting a vote in the state Assembly. Labor officials say it could become a national model as the first card-check process to cover a large group of private employees - especially as hope for a national majority signup election law has waned.
Experts also say such a system would boost the union's membership, which has fallen from more than 70,000 in the 1970s to what officials say is about 27,000 today. That's based on the number of people who work under union contract at least one day a year. However, the union has reported only about 5,000 members to the U.S. Department of Labor in each of the past eight Decembers, an admittedly slow month for farming.
Growers oppose the card-check bill, saying secret ballot elections work well and most employers follow the law.
"We don't believe there's been adequate justification for eliminating the right of workers to a secret ballot election," said John Aguirre, president of the California Association of Winegrape Growers. "Where improvements need to be made, we should focus on those specific problems rather than create a new system which opens the door for unions to pressure workers to sign cards."
The penalties for unfair labor practice violations under current law are limited, Aguirre conceded, but he said the "real world" costs, such as lawyers' fees, are high.
Labor organizers say that's not enough, pointing to a hotly contested 2005 election at Giumarra Vineyards, one of the country's largest table grape growers. The union had collected cards signed by more than 70 percent of the vineyard's 3,000 workers, setting the stage for a victory. But it lost the election with only 48 percent of the vote.
A state examiner found the vineyard had committed misconduct, but it didn't matter; by that time, the union could have called for a new election anyway, making the only available sanction - nullifying the election - irrelevant. The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board acknowledged the situation illustrated "a larger systemic problem" and called the process "a meaningless exercise" that only encourages employer misconduct.
"It's almost to the point of, what for?" said Elenes, the UFW vice-president. "We realized we have to change the process."
The union has been criticized for failing to unionize more of California's 460,000 agricultural workers. ALRB data shows the union filed for fewer than 30 elections during the past nine years. It has not filed for a single election in the San Joaquin Valley, the heart of California's agriculture, since 2006.
Along with employer intimidation, organizers say changing demographics and high turnover have created obstacles.
Farmworkers are a transient labor force and leave agriculture as soon as they can, said Philip Martin, an agriculture professor at the University of California, Davis. Many today are in the U.S. illegally and come from poorer areas of Mexico and Central America, where they speak indigenous languages - a major change from Chavez' day, when most spoke English or Spanish and had legal documents.
Not only do the newcomers know little or nothing about unions, but they don't want to take any risks, having already taken one very expensive one in crossing the border illegally, Martin said. Some of the workers in Woodville, a small town 60 miles north of Bakersfield, had never even heard of the UFW.
Union officials say the shift in workers' legal status also has made them more vulnerable to intimidation. They can't get drivers' licenses or unemployment insurance and rely on their employers for housing and transportation as well as their jobs, said Giev Kashkooli, the UFW's strategic campaigns director. And many now work year-round for labor contractors rather than short stints on individual farms, making them even more reluctant to antagonize their employers.
While the check-card bill would address some of these problems, it won't solve them all, Martin said. Workers may continue to reject representation, he said, because they find little appeal in a union that doesn't bring substantial economic gains. Recent contracts have involved raises of only 2 percent to 3 percent per year, and union members pay 3 percent in dues.
"The union might say it's not just wages. But if you talk to workers, who are young target earners, they really want money. That takes priority," Martin said. "The punch line to the whole story is, when you win the election, the question is can the union deliver something?"
© 2011 The Associated Press.