Gavin Newsom meets an unexpected antagonist: Joe Biden

The governor is privately seething about Biden’s endorsement, said five people with knowledge of the governor’s thinking who spoke on condition of anonymity to disclose internal discussions. Newsom’s office declined to comment for this story.

Biden headlines a growing list of top Democratic officials who have backed the measure, including Vice President Kamala Harris and the Speaker of the House Nancy Pelosi.

Now Newsom must choose between the state’s powerful farm interests and a famous union – all while being in the blatant national spotlight amid intense speculation over his presidential ambitions which he has fueled with recent high profile fights with Republican governors.

“He’s getting pressure from all sides,” said Steve Maviglio, a longtime Democratic consultant who served as former Governor Gray Davis’ communications director.

The United Farm Workers increased the pressure on Newsom last month as members of the iconic California-based union and thousands of supporters marched from their headquarters in the San Joaquin Valley farming town of Delano to the Capitol of the state in Sacramento.

Newsom did not personally meet with workers or UFW representatives once they arrived at the Capitol. His staff went in his place, meeting a group that included the family of 17-year-old Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez, who died while working in the field in 2008.

It wasn’t the first time a California governor had rejected the union. Former Governor Edmund Brown, a liberal giant in his own right, notoriously refused to cancel a family trip to Frank Sinatra’s home in Palm Springs, instead of meeting legendary UFW leader Cesar Chavez in 1966.

The The recent sequence of events is similar to protests organized by Chavez and fellow civil rights icon Dolores Huerta in the 1960s and 1970s. Their fight to help farmworkers win contracts captured public attention, prompting millions people to boycott grapes and lettuce. In 1975, California became the first state to protect the right of agricultural workers to unionize.

Chavez’s legacy looms large in California, which has a holiday in his honor — and for Biden, who keeps a bronze bust of him in the Oval Office and employs a granddaughter of the late labor leader, Julie Chavez. Rodriguez, as senior adviser and director of the White House Office of Intergovernmental Affairs.

A White House spokesman said Wednesday that the UFW bill is one that Biden’s team has been following closely for about a year, and that the administration has long signaled its support for farmworkers. and the rights of workers to organize. Union leaders were not surprised by the president’s support for the California bill, although they did not seek approval, said Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at UFW.

Newsom has not confirmed whether he will sign or veto the bill, which is now being compared to the landmark 1975 law.

State labor rules for the agricultural sector are still governed by this law, which created a system in which workers could vote privately at a polling place to keep individual decisions secret. union organizers say the system has broken down and puts a largely undocumented workforce at risk of deportation. Cases of workers being kicked out after supporting union organizing efforts are commonplace, Strater said.

Less than one percent of California’s 800,000 farm workers are unionized, according to the U.S. Bureau of Labor Statistics, following a sharp decline in participation that the union says is linked to fear of immigration officials . The share of undocumented agricultural workers has risen from 13% in the mid-1970s to over 70% today.

“You can’t vote for your union election from a detention center,” Strater said.

The bill would give farm companies two options for handling unionization: sign an agreement not to interfere with a union’s attempt to organize and allow mail-in elections, or be put through a process where workers can vote simply by signing a union representation card.

Farmers and business groups like the California Chamber of Commerce are adamantly opposed to the proposal, arguing that it is a blatant ploy by UFW to increase its membership.

“This essentially amounts to a forced union submission, because even the mail-in ballot provision allows the representative of the union organization to fill out the ballot,” said Matthew Allen, vice president of state government affairs. for Western Growers. “It’s really quite simple what the bill does. It is eliminating a farm worker’s right to election by secret ballot.

At the late August meeting with UFW representatives and Newsom’s team, members of the governor’s staff made a verbal offer related to the legislation, which the union opposed, Strater said. The governor’s office never responded.

Newsom’s office backed a statement released by Erin Mellon, the governor’s director of communications, the day before the marchers arrived in Sacramento, that the governor “cannot support an untested mail-in election process that lacks essential provisions to protect the integrity of the election”.

Newsom gave little insight into his thinking last year when he rejected a similar proposal, writing that the bill had “various inconsistencies and procedural problems” regarding the collection and review of ballots. The veto angered both labor and progressive state lawmakers, but barely registered as a gasp in the news cycle.

This year, negotiations between Newsom and UFW broke down over the governor’s demand that federal labor standards be used for mail-in elections, which would give employers advance notice of when the election will be held. Proponents of the bill say this position would jeopardize a worker’s immigration status before election day.

UFW’s current efforts mirror the union’s strategy from decades ago, said Gaspar Rivera-Salgado, project director at UCLA’s Center for Labor Research and Education. Farmworkers have little political capital, he said, so they have had to employ tactics like grueling marches to capture public opinion — and the attention of politicians.

In response to strikes and food boycotts that put pressure on the supermarket industry, a first term Governor Jerry Brown in 1975 helped push the bill protecting the union rights of farm workers through the Assembly legislative. Newsom could soon be placed in a similar position, as the UFW and powerful allies like the California Federation of Labor say they will ensure the bill comes back if vetoed.

“It’s not going to stop, and I think it’s really, really important for the governor to consider that,” said Lorena Gonzalez, a former state lawmaker who now leads the Labor Fed.

Maviglio said he expects Newsom to veto the bill in the coming weeks. The decision will have little impact on his future as governor, he said, but it could leave a sour taste in the mouths of union members and Latino voters, potentially complicating his national ambitions.

“Those looking at the bigger picture are more worried about the impact this will have on his long-term political future,” he said. “With these two communities, I think it’s going to be a thorn in his side for a long time.”

Political observers also say that while Biden has been very active in labor struggles — he recently invited union leaders from Amazon and Starbucks to the White House — this moment provided an opportunity to lash out at a governor. who became increasingly involved in national politics.

“Newsom basically needled the Democratic establishment about his posts and took offense to everything he did with it. [Florida Gov. Ron] DeSantis,” Maviglio said. “And it was a good opportunity for Biden to push him back.”

Christopher Cadelago contributed reporting for this story.

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