(CN) – The largest tree fruit grower in California won a legal victory Wednesday, when an appellate court ruled an agricultural labor board inappropriately set aside a crucial vote regarding union representation.
The Fifth Appellate District in California handed Gerawan Farming a victory over the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, saying the board will have to revisit its decision to set aside an election taken by farmworkers to decertify the United Farm Workers of America as their union representative.
“Having reviewed the entire record, we conclude that several of the unfair labor practice findings relied on by the Board were unsupported by the record as a whole,” wrote Associate Justice Herbert Levy on behalf of the other two judges.
The case dates back to an election taken by farmworkers employed by Gerawan Farming, which grows fruit trees at a massive scale in two distinct locations in California’s Central Valley near Fresno.
United Farm Workers, the agricultural labor union once headed by Cesar Chavez, initially asserted its rights in 1992 as the labor representative for the approximately 2,500 workers who work at Gerawan.
Then, according to Gerawan, the union disappeared until 2012, when UFW representatives showed up and demanded the right to collectively bargain on behalf of the workers.
Gerawan told its employees about UFW’s return to the scene, but also allegedly said disparaging things about the union, told employees they would lose 3 percent of their paychecks and that Gerawan was the highest paying fruit producer in California, rendering the union useless.
One employee, Sylvia Lopez, concerned about the union’s interference at the farm, began collecting signatures necessary to decertify the union as the workers’ representative.
The union said that while workers have the right to decide whether or not they want union representation, the general anti-union atmosphere created by the Gerawan family tainted the process leading up to the decertification vote held on Tuesday, November 5, 2013.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board ultimately agreed with the union and instead of tallying the votes of the largest decertification election in the board’s history, the board ordered the ballots impounded, where they remain in storage nearly five years later.
The board said the process was tainted by the general anti-union atmosphere at the farm, the fact that supervisors and crew bosses were involved in the signature collection, coupled with the fact that other workers, including Lopez, were allowed to gather signatures during work.
Gerawan allegedly allowed protests against the UFW and told workers the farm would go out of business if UFW were allowed to bargain collectively on their behalf.
The labor board ruled that all of these instances added up to a tainted election and refused to tally the votes.
Levy and the other judges said this act of setting aside the election was “drastic” and ultimately unsupported by the law.
“It appears that the Board applied an incomplete or inadequate legal standard in reaching its decision to set aside the election,” Levy wrote. “Specifically, the Board applied a narrow ‘taint’ (or taint on the petition) standard under which it failed to meaningfully consider whether a reasonable basis existed to conclude that Gerawan’s misconduct interfered with the employees’ ability to exercise free choice in the election.”
The judges said that even if Gerawan’s actions were proven to be true, they didn’t necessarily rise to the level of preventing an entire election, which was essentially stifling the voice of the workers due to the misdeed of the employer.
“In essence, the Board so narrowly focused on punishing the employer that it effectively lost sight of the correlative statutory value of protecting the farmworkers’ right to choose, which was and is a fundamental part of the Board’s mission under the [Agricultural Labor Relations Act],” Levy wrote.
The three-judge panel also took time in the 138-page decision to consider each of the allegations against Gerawan, finding some of them to have sufficient evidence, particularly the claims of crew bosses participating in pro-decertification activities.
However, the panel found other claims to be unsupported by the record.
For example, the judges took issue with the board’s determination that Gerawan discriminated against pro-union workers and gave better treatment to the opposing side.
“We conclude that the finding by the board that Gerawan discriminated in favor of, or treated preferentially, pro-decertification workers in regards to work time signature gathering was not supported by substantial evidence,” Levy wrote.
The panel also found allegations that Gerawan allowed pro-decertification protests to be without substantial evidence.
The appeals court remanded the case back to the labor board, ordering them to reconsider whether setting aside the election is appropriate in light of the new facts — namely that many of the claims against Gerawan were found to have been unsupported by evidence.
The board will also have to apply a more rigorous legal standard if they want to set aside an election and deny the workers the right to determine whether or not they want union representation.
Phone calls to David Schwartz, attorney for Gerawan, and UFW headquarters were not returned as of press time. An email sent to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board was also not returned.