Bishop Joseph Brennan of Fresno joined the United Farm Workers last week for a portion of the union’s march through California’s Central Valley to support a union voting rights bill.

The more than 300-mile march from Delano to Sacramento is in support of Assembly Bill 2183, the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act. The bill would allow farmworkers to use mail-in ballots for union elections.

The march passed through Fresno Aug. 11. Bishop Brennan, along with his predecessor, Bishop Armando Ochoa, joined the march at St. Anthony Mary Claret Church, and then spoke at a rally at Calwa Recreation & Park District, where Bishop Brennan also gave a blessing to the marchers.

“Our diocese is almost all agricultural land … and many people, many of the faithful here within our diocese,  people sitting in the pews, have some ties to farm workers or to agriculture,” Chandler Marquez, communications director for the Diocese of Fresno, told CNA.

“Farmworkers here and their rights are very important because they're the ones who make the harvest happen for us.”

The Fresno diocese has long had warm relations with farmworkers, Marquez added. After the 1948 crash of a DC-3 killed the 32 persons aboard, most of whom were migrant farm laborers, the diocese covered their burial costs, and in 2013 aided in erecting a memorial with their names.

Regarding AB 2183, Marquez explained that “right now, the way the farmworkers vote [on unionizing] is on grower land, which could cause some intimidation, from performance supervisors and so forth. So this bill would actually just let them vote in the comfort of their own home without fear of that retaliation.”

He added that the California Catholic Conference “decided that they were going to support, back this bill to further the vote union voting rights of the farmworkers here in California.”

When the UFW was founded by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s, their marches “almost always led with an Our Lady of Guadalupe flag,” Marquez said.

“And so because farmworkers are primarily Hispanic, and Catholicism is so prevalent within the Hispanic and Latino communities, the two, the Church and and the farmworkers, are kind of organically linked in that way.”

Each day, the march begins with Mass or a blessing from a cleric.

The march near Turlock, Calif., Aug. 17, 2022. (United Farm Workers via CNA)

Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns at the UFW, told CNA that “with the diocese engaged, that's really inspirational to folks, and, you know, we've got everyone, from the low rider car folks to the Bishop Emeritus, it's really, a broad swath.”

She said 30 farmworkers had committed to walking the entire march, which lasts Aug. 3-26, and that daily numbers of participants vary widely from day to day, but that 250 or 300 were participating in the Fresno area.

“A lot of people are coming and joining to march for one or two days, who will bring their families on the weekends, so it's fluctuating, but there's a steady growth,” she said.

A bill similar to AB 2183 was vetoed last year by Governor Gavin Newsom, who wrote to the state Assembly that it “contain[ed] various inconsistencies and procedural issues related to the collection and review of ballot cards.”

Strater emphasized the strength of community support that the Agricultural Labor Relations Voting Choice Act has this year: “We have an incredibly mobilized amount of community support; the might of the California labor movement is behind us.”

She said hospitality workers had recently joined the march, and the UFW has re-affiliated with the California Labor Federation, which is now led by Lorena Gonzalez, a former Assemblywoman who was a a coauthor of last year’s bill.

“We really do want to be a part of this statewide solidarity that we're seeing from hospital workers, from autoworkers, from teamsters, to farmworkers who might really fold in with this … unified California Labor Federation.”

In meetings with Newsom’s office and Assemblymember Mark Stone, the UFW has been “able to just clearly communicate the ways that farmworkers are experiencing intimidation, they’re experiencing voter suppression, and much of the conversation that we've had has has been focused on how that voter suppression, how that fear, is preventing workers from being able to organize,” Strater explained.

AB 2183 is currently in the state Senate, and faces a third reading. The bill passed the Assembly in May.