LAS VEGAS - If enacted, the Employee Free Choice Act could mean big changes in packers' and processors' relationship with their employees.

The act - known as card check - excludes agriculture only to the farm gate, said Kam Quarles, vice president of government relations and legislative affairs for Washington, D.C.-based United Fresh Produce Association.

Quarles - along with Barry Bedwell, president of the Fresno-based California Grape & Tree Fruit League - spoke during a workshop addressing employment and immigration issues April 22 during United Fresh's convention and exposition.

Unionization, immigration challenges confront industry
In the case of any impasse, after 120 days the new rules would force contract arbitration for a two-year deal, Quarles says, adding that "it's the second half of a very ugly picture on card check."

The act would require union organizers to simply get 51% of employees to sign up to form a union and is controversial because if eliminates secret-ballot requirements.

The union would be immediately recognized.

The lack of a secret ballot increases the possibility of intimidation and "keeping score" by union organizers, he said.

In the case of any impasse, after 120 days the new rules would force contract arbitration for a two-year deal, Quarles said, adding that "it's the second half of a very ugly picture on card check."

Also of concern is that the decertification process is more complicated than just getting a majority of employees' support, he said.

Tying worker safety issues such as heat-stress regulations to unionization, Bedwell said, has been a tactic by California proponents.

The Democrat's wider majority in the House and Senate after the 2008 election along with President Obama's pledge to sign the law if it reaches his desk have added urgency, Quarles said.

The group Agriculture for a Democratic Workplace has the support of 55 organization and has a Web site - www.coalitionforagriculture.org - that card check opponents can use as a resource.

Immigration

Obama has said comprehensive immigration reform is on the agenda for this year, Quarles said.

The president has signaled the AgJobs immigrant labor plan would be part of the effort.

More good news for ag producers is the E-Verify provision, which requires employers to check workers' eligibility, is tied up in court for now.

Despite Obama's support for immigration reform, it faces challenges because of the economic downturn and opposition from Republicans opposing "amnesty," Quarles said.

"It's a radioactive issue with conservative Republicans," he said.