Column: Biden turns tables on Newsom by backing California farmworker bill

DELANO, CA - MARCH 31: First Lady Dr. Jill Biden participates in a Day of Action at The Forty Acres with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, United Farm Workers, and the UFW Foundation on Wednesday, March 31, 2021 in Delano, CA. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)
First Lady Dr. Jill Biden addresses leaders and supporters of the United Farm Workers at Forty Acres with the Cesar Chavez Foundation, United Farm Workers, and the UFW Foundation on March 31, 2021, in Delano, Calif. (Kent Nishimura / Los Angeles Times)

California farmworkers may struggle with clout in our state Capitol, but they definitely have friends in higher places.

Those include Dark Brandon, that feisty internet alter ego of Joe Biden who is done being the ice-cream-eating nice guy — and is letting his antagonists know it, whether they are MAGA Republicans or wayward California governors.

Sunday, on the eve of Labor Day, Biden weighed in on a boiling fight between the United Farm Workers and Gov. Gavin Newsom over a bill that the governor has signaled he will veto.

The president made it clear he's a real one for the UFW.

"In the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union," he wrote in a four-paragraph statement.

"Government should work to remove — not erect — barriers to workers organizing," he continued.

Along with supporting farmworkers, which Biden has long done (he has a bust of César Chávez on his desk, borrowed from the national monument outside Bakersfield), there's a Dark Brandon subtext in the statement: Keep dishing it out and we'll serve it right back.

For months, Newsom has been calling out fellow Democrats for not being tough enough on "Make America Great Again" Republicans. It's been refreshing to see and has garnered the governor national attention for standing up to the far right's war on women, trans people, gay people, educators, librarians, FBI agents and anyone else that doesn't support Christian nationalism.

But it's also put other Democrats, including Biden (up until his recent, important speech calling out fascism for what it is), in a hard position. Newsom found a political sweet spot as the in-the-trenches Democrat, at the expense of fellow Democrats, in a strategy that is definitely, absolutely not about testing the waters for a presidential run. Monday, Vice President Kamala Harris, whom Newsom would have to leapfrog for a 2024 spot, also tweeted support for farmworkers.

So happy Labor Day, Mr. Newsom, from your friends in Washington, D.C., who also know how this game works, and have played it a long, long time.

True, this could just be a piece of well-rehearsed political stagecraft, in which Biden called up Newsom beforehand and — instead of saying, "C'mon, man!" — said, "Hey, Gavin, just a heads-up that I'm giving a push to this UFW legislation. No hard feelings. Look forward to seeing you at that fundraiser."

Possibly Biden even conceded to Newsom that he was obligated to endorse the UFW legislation, given that his White House director of intergovernmental affairs is Julie Chávez Rodriguez, the granddaughter of César Chávez.

Even so, it's just one more headache from a bill with political ramifications that have turned from rumble to thunder and could now lead to headlines such as "Newsom vetoes farmworker bill endorsed by Biden and Kamala Harris."

The measure in question, Assembly Bill 2183, is on paper a proposal to change the rules on how farmworkers unionize. From UFW's perspective, the bill is about how the farmworker workforce has increasingly changed over the decades from legal immigrants to those without documentation — making them vulnerable to threats of deportation if they try to join a union. That's been happening at the same time that agricultural interests have more labor leverage, using more workers with temporary visas who can be ousted from both jobs and the country with almost no protections.

In an era when joining a union should be risk free, farmworkers face threats even greater than when Chávez, Dolores Huerta and Larry Itliong began their fight decades ago.

But Newsom has indicated he thinks the bill has too many flaws and gives the union too much leeway — a union that has been rightfully criticized for not using its clout to organize more laborers. Behind the scenes for weeks, the governor's staff has scrambled to find a compromise with UFW and the bill's author, Assemblymember Mark Stone (D-Scotts Valley), that would narrow the discretion the bill gives to union organizers by putting more power in the hands of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

The UFW has offered this solution: a sunset clause that makes the whole framework disappear after five years unless the Legislature renews it.

It hasn't swayed the governor. In fact, rumors have been circulating that he will veto the bill as soon as this week.

It has become a wedge in an otherwise tight relationship with organized labor. Which may be one reason that on Monday, as union members across the state gathered to celebrate the workers' holiday, Newsom signed another bill of critical importance to them — one that gives fast food workers more rights to set working conditions and pay.

But he signed that bill apparently standing alone in a field — nary a worker in sight, releasing a one-man video in which he waved the signed legislation halfheartedly with hills and chaparral for company. Perhaps he was locked out of the office, or just working remotely from the side of the road. But to sign such a landmark piece of legislation without the fanfare of cheering union workers behind him is a message in itself.

Despite being a huge win for the "Fight for $15" campaign and the Service Employees International Union, it's not enough to make up for the farmworkers.

Which makes that Dark Brandon punch all the more painful. Maybe without it, the fast food workers bill would have taken the headlines. Maybe the farmworker fight would have stayed simmering in the background, buried under other news.

But the president weighing in so directly and forcefully changes the game. With unionism sweeping the nation right now, and a new generation of young workers embracing the old ideal of solidarity, Biden has ensured that a veto would be a stain on Newsom's progressive credentials, now and in the future.

Whether you take it as Biden being Biden or Dark Brandon or a bit of both, it's hard to argue with the president's words, or think they won't stick.

"It is long past time that we ensure America’s farmworkers and other essential workers have the same right to join a union as other Americans," he wrote.

How can anyone be against that?

This story originally appeared in Los Angeles Times.