Politics & Government

Farm groups pleased with governor's vetoes

SACRAMENTO -- Valley farm groups on Monday celebrated Gov. Schwarzenegger's veto of a pair of bills that would have given farmworkers the option to unionize by signing cards instead of casting secret ballots.

The vetoes -- which disheartened the United Farm Workers union -- were among the final bill announcements the governor issued late Sunday night, less than two hours before a midnight deadline to act on legislation passed this year.

The governor also announced the signing of a controversial bill that will raise "smog abatement" fees by $8 per vehicle to pay for alternative fuel research and vehicle replacement programs.

Some Valley leaders said the program might help clean the region's notoriously bad air. But other environmental activists worried that poor people might not be able to afford the fee increase.

The two farmworker bills, a top priority of the UFW, were aimed at stopping companies from intimidating workers against joining a union.

Industry groups -- including Valley-based farm organizations -- strongly opposed the bills, saying workers already have adequate protections.

Senate Bill 180, by Carole Migden, D-San Francisco, would have given farmworkers the option to unionize through "card-check" organizing. If a majority of workers signed cards, the union would have been certified. SB 650, which also was vetoed, was identical to SB 180, except that it would have expired in 2013.

The governor said the "card check process fundamentally alters an employee's right to a secret ballot election" and "limits the opportunity for employees to hear or consider other points of view," according to a veto statement.

California Grape and Tree Fruit League President Barry Bedwell, who led the lobbying against the bills, said the governor "sent a clear message" about the right to a secret ballot.

For several days last month, farmworkers from across the state came to Sacramento to demonstrate around the clock in favor of the bill. Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW, personally lobbied the governor.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said "the veto is pretty devastating for farmworkers."

The legislation's fate might have been sealed by its placement earlier this year on the California Chamber of Commerce's "job killer" bill list.

Schwarzenegger, a moderate Republican, has angered plenty of GOP interest groups in the last couple years -- especially with his drive to enact regulations to stem global warming. But he clearly pays attention to the job-killer list. Since taking office, he has vetoed 90% of the bills that make the list, according to the chamber.

Under the current process, farmworkers wishing to join a union must first submit a petition signed by a majority of employees. The state Agricultural Relations Board must then hold a secret-ballot election within seven days.

Unions say that during the waiting period, businesses discourage yes votes by intimidating workers, including threatening to close down if the union wins, or firing or blacklisting pro-union workers.

The process "leaves too much room for abuse," Grossman said.

The bill to increase vehicle fees for clean air programs was authored by Assembly Speaker Fabian Núñez, D-Los Angeles.

Núñez, in a statement, said Assembly Bill 118 will help the state reduce greenhouse gas emissions and move California "closer to the day when fewer children will have to start their mornings by taking a hit from asthma inhalers."

Beginning July 1, 2008, "smog abatement fees" imposed on newer vehicles exempted from the state's smog-check program will jump from $12 to $20, and the vehicle registration fee will increase from $31 to $34. Proceeds will pay for research into alternative fuels and cleaner-burning vehicles.

Payments also will be made to residents who voluntarily replace high-polluting vehicles. It's estimated the new fees will raise about $200 million a year.

Pete Weber, a Fresno-area civic leader, said the Valley stands to gain from the new law.

"We probably have more [high-polluting cars] in the Valley than anywhere else in California," he said.

But Valley environmentalists who represent low-income communities said the legislation has serious flaws.

For instance, the fuel research dollars could end up in the hands of big oil companies, which might have paid for such studies anyway, said Carolina Simunovic, an air-quality advocate with Fresno Metro Ministry.

AB 118's goals are similar to those of last year's Proposition 87, a failed ballot measure that would have imposed a $4 billion tax on oil production. The oil industry fought hard against that measure but supported AB 118.

Also, Simunovic said, the new fees will place new burdens on low-income residents.

Even more fee increases for clean air programs could be on the way.

A bill that would have given Valley air regulators new authority to raise vehicle registration fees by up to $30 failed to get out of the Legislature this year. But the bill's author, Sen. Dean Florez, D-Shafter, has vowed to try again next year.