Traceability, tariffs, labor and water rights rank high among lobbying agenda issues for the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League.

The pressing labor-related issue of the moment for the league, and a focus of its lobbying efforts this year, is proposed card-check legislation, said Barry Bedwell, the organization’s president.

Under card check, employees of a company cast public votes on whether they want to form a union. In other kinds of voting for or against union membership, balloting is secret.

The name of proposed federal legislation that would allow card check voting is a serious misnomer, Bedwell said.

“The Employee Free Choice Act is anything but that,” he said.

As one lawmaker opposed to the measure said, the Employee “Forced” Choice Act would be a better name for it, Bedwell said.

Fortunately, he said, there are a number of other lawmakers who share their colleague’s sentiments on the issue — if not his gift for phrase-making.

“It’s (the card check bill) having trouble in the Senate, as well it should,” Bedwell said. “Realistically, once people understand that their absolute right to a secret ballot is being taken away, they say, ‘There’s got to be a better way.’”

Resolving trade conflicts with Mexico is another hot-button issue for the league, Bedwell said.

Grapes, which now face a 45% tariff, are one of the commodities most affected by the impasse, Bedwell said. But while the problem is a very serious one, time is on California shippers’ side.

“It’s a very major concern,” he said. “The good news is we have time. (Grapes slated for export to Mexico) don’t ship until later in the summer.”

Between now and then, Bedwell said, hopes are high for a compromise.

“Once people realize what’s at stake, they’ll come to a reasonable compromise,” he said.

The committee was set to hold a May 1 workshop to educate growers on what kinds of traceability demands they can expect in coming months and years, Bedwell said.
“We’re trying to help our members understand requests related to bags in terms of traceability,” he said. “(There are) requests by retailers for bar codes on bags. The workshop will provide some further detail on what could happen.”

The Newark, Del.-based Produce Marketing Association’s Produce Traceability Initiative, by contrast, calls for traceability down to the box, not the bag, level, Bedwell said.

Bedwell said he can understand where retailers are coming from. The more extensive the labeling, the quicker a product at retail is to check out, and the less chance there is for error.

But putting that into practice, at least right now, for grape growers is easier said than done.

“We understand the need to automate as much as possible,” he said. “But we have much different challenges in stickering for traceability down to that last clamshell.”

For now, the league is working on getting growers up to speed in time for GTIN box-level traceability standards set to go into effect next year.

Last but not least, the league will be working hard, as always, on water-related issues in the latter half of 2009, Bedwell said.

April saw what Bedwell called a historic event in California — a march, hosted by the California Latino Water Coalition, from Mendota to the San Luis Reservoir to protest the state’s current water policies.

Building more dams and moving more water from Northern to Southern California are among the goals the league intends to lobby for, Bedwell said.

Current conditions aside, no problem is more worthy of attention, he said.

“We’re not at risk this particular year, but we are long-term,” he said.