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Farmworker union marches through Central Valley for voting rights bill

UFW March
Juan Esparza Loera
/
The Fresno Bee
The 24-day "March for the Governor's Signature" began at Forty Acres in Delano on Aug. 3, 2022. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA jesparza@vidaenelvalle.com

Farmworkers from across the state have set off on a 335-mile trek to Sacramento to show support for a voting rights bill.

Hundreds of Californians gathered at The Forty Acres - the United Farm Workers’ first headquarters - in Delano last week to kick off the “March for the Governor’s Signature.” They wore light layers, sun hats and lots of sunscreen. They carried brightly colored signs that read “Support Farm Workers!” in English and Spanish. Some were marching the whole month-long route, and others were only joining for the day.

“There's a lot of barriers that stand in the way when farmworkers are looking to organize,” says Andres Chavez, the grandson of UFW co-founder Cesar E. Chavez. “There's a lot of coercion, a lot of power and intimidation, used against workers.”

The group set off at 8 a.m. last Wednesday. They’ll be marching an average of 14 miles a day under the Central Valley sun.

It isn’t the first time farmworkers have embarked on this route. In 1966, Cesar Chavez led strikers on a similar path to call for better working conditions and higher wages. On the first anniversary of Chavez’s death, in 1994, marchers took the same route to kick off a new field organizing and contract negotiating campaign.

“My grandfather said that if you want to remember him, organize,” Andres Chavez says of this traditional march. “And today what's happening is we’re organizing. That's how we carry on his legacy today.”

Farm workers are marching in support of the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act - Assembly Bill 2183.

“AB 2183 is really a fairly simple mechanism to give farm workers the opportunity to mail in ballots - vote from home, fill it out, seal the envelope and mail it in,” says Assemblymember Mark Stone, a co-author of the bill.

Last year, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill, AB 616. In a letter addressed to the state Assembly, Newsom said he could not support the bill because of “various inconsistencies” in its implementation.

Multiple Chambers of Commerce throughout the Central Valley - most notably those in Fresno, Bakersfield and Tulare - stand in opposition to the bill. They labeled it a “job killer,” saying it would coerce and misinform farmworkers when casting ballots during secret elections.

Many organizations are also against the bill. The president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, Ian Lemay, says the bill would actually eliminate farmworkers’ right to vote and the secret ballot in union elections. He believes there is more effective legislation that should be implemented.

“There's actually a federal example in the National Labor Relations Act that allows for vote-by mail balloting in union elections,” says Lemay. “If the governor were to mimic that existing practice, it would be an easy implementation for the ALRB.”

Despite what critics say, Delano’s Mayor Pro-Tem Veronica Vasquez is certain Newsom will sign AB 2183.

“It's going to happen. I'm very confident,” says Vasquez. “That's been my mentality. I talk things to existence and I'm beyond optimistic because I believe that he'll do the right thing.”

When Vasquez and the rest of the crowd took off on Garces Highway last week, it was already 80 degrees out and it was only going to get hotter throughout the day. Marchers were chanting “We can do it!” in Spanish as they walked in single file.

Dolores Huerta, one of the UFW’s co-founders, says marching in the summer is a great sacrifice.

“We want everyone to send their prayers and best wishes to the people who are marching,” Huerta says in Spanish. “There’s going to be brutal heat.”

Maria de Lourdes Carrillo is a farmworker from Kern County. She’s going to march most of the route to Sacramento. She says she’s marching for her husband, her sons and all the farmworkers who couldn’t make it.

“All of you are here with me,” Carrillo says to her fellow farmworkers in Spanish. “May God help you as you continue to work in the field, because you all work so hard.”

The march is expected to end on August 26 on the steps of the State Capitol.

This story is part of the Central Valley News Collaborative, which is supported by the Central Valley Community Foundation with technology and training support by Microsoft Corp.

Esther Quintanilla is a reporter for KVPR covering diverse communities.