Farm Labor Struggle Roils Central Valley


     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – The battle continues between a large farming company in California’s Central Valley, the UFW union, and the state’s Agriculture Labor Relations Board, with all sides claiming to be looking out for the best interests of farm workers.
     Workers voted last year on whether to leave the United Farm Workers union, but the results of that vote have not yet been counted by the California Agriculture Labor Relations Board, which believes that Gerawan Farms coerced its employees to fight the union.
     Gerawan, which employs more than 5,000 workers during peak harvest season, is facing unfair labor charges at a state administrative hearing in front of Judge Mark Soble in downtown Fresno. The hearing is expected to last several weeks, if not months, and should decide whether the votes should be counted or the election dismissed.
     Seeds for the controversy between UFW, founded in the 1970s by labor icon Cesar Chavez, and Gerawan Farms were planted 23 years ago when workers at the giant farming company in Fresno voted to have the union represent them.
     The UFW was officially certified by the ALRB in 1992 as exclusive bargaining representative for Gerawan employees, but no contract was successfully negotiated between Gerawan and the UFW for more than 20 years.
     In a federal complaint against members of the ALRB in connection to their decision not to count the votes to decertify the union, Gerawan worker Sylvia Lopez claimed in February this year that for decades, the UFW did “nothing to protect Gerawan’s workers or to attempt to negotiate, in good faith, a contract with Gerawan. Since early 1995, and until late-2012, it did not even make an effort to contact Gerawan. In short, for two decades, the union did absolutely nothing to carry out its legal duties as the certified bargaining representative of the Gerawan workers,” according to Lopez’s federal complaint.
     In 2012, the union contacted Gerawan to discuss a contract. The two sides met several times, but were unable to reach an agreement. In its complaint against Gerawan , the ALRB claimed that the farming company illegally undermined the UFW’s position as the workers’ representative.
     According to the ALRB, Gerawan began an intensive and continuing campaign to “undermine the UFW’s status as its employees’ bargaining representative; to turn its employees against the union; to promote decertification of the UFW; and to prevent the UFW from ever representing its employees under a collective bargaining agreement.”
     During this time, Gerawan gave employees raises without mentioning negotiations with the union, which undermined the UFW’s status as the bargaining agent and reinforced that Gerawan was solely responsible for setting the terms of employment, the ALRB said.
     After negotiations failed, the UFW invoked its right to a mediator under California’s Mandatory Mediation Law, in April 2013. The mediator issued a contract that was finalized by the ALRB in November 2013. It called for wage increases retroactive to July 2013, additional vacation days, and for 3 percent of wages to be paid as union dues.
      Gerawan sued the ALRB in October 2013 in Fresno County Superior Court, claiming that that the mandatory mediation to which it had been subjected was unconstitutional, partly because workers had been barred from attending the on-the-record proceedings. Gerawan claimed that one worker, Lupe Garcia, asked to sit and watch the proceedings, but was told he could not.
     The decision to exclude workers “makes secret a process that will dictate wages and working conditions for thousands of agricultural workers including Mr. Garcia. Gerawan and its employees will be bound by this state-imposed contract, even though they never agreed to this process – it has been imposed on them by the state. Workers like Mr. Garcia will have no right to opt out of the contract and no right to vote on it,” Gerawan said in its complaint.
     The judge found in favor of the ALRB on Gerawan’s constitutional challenges, a decision that Gerawan had appealed to California’s 5th District Court of California.
     Gerawan refused to implement the new contract, prompting the ALRB to file a lawsuit of its own a year ago in Superior Court, seeking to impose the contract through the judicial system.
     Judge Jeff Hamilton rejected the request.
     In the midst of negotiations between Gerawan and UFW, some Gerawan workers, led by Silvia Lopez, called for an election to decertify the union altogether.
     The workers took a vote on Nov. 5, 2013, but the results were never tallied by the ALRB.
     Lopez sued the ALRB in February this year, claiming that the board members were holding ballots “hostage” based on “UFW-directed allegations calculated to stymie the election process.”
     “The continual refusal to count the votes and reveal the results of the election is an ongoing violation of the First and Fourteenth Amendments to the United States Constitution and Article 1 of the California Constitution,” Lopez said in her complaint.
     Lopez claimed that the board’s refusal to count the votes was based on the knowledge that the results would call for decertification of the UFW.
     The board, however, argued that it has refrained from counting the votes because Gerawan illegally influenced its workers to vote for decertification.
     Among other things, the ALRB accused Gerawan of “blocking ranch entrances to coerce employees into signing a decertification petition; by canceling work to support anti-UFW and anti-ALRB protests; and by asking or requiring workers to attend anti-UFW and anti-ALRB protests instead of performing work,” according to the complaint filed by Sylvia Torres-Guillen, General Counsel for ALRB.
     Gerawan allegedly told its employees that it would go out of business if the union was allowed to negotiate a contract, interrogated workers about their union support, and granted employees unlawful wage increases before to the election.
     Gerawan denies the accusations.
     “Not once in her complaint does the General Counsel mention that her staff asked for, and was given, unlimited access to speak to every Gerawan worker, so that the ALRB could explain to our workers their right to choose, without any influence from our company, the UFW, or the Board. The ALRB got what it asked for. It spoke directly to over 2,000 workers,” Gerawan said in a statement.
     Gerawan claimed that the “General Counsel ignores the fact that twice thousands of our workers – a majority of our employees – filed petitions asking the Board for the right to an election. She ignores the fact that 800 workers delivered sworn statements testifying to one simple fact – they exercised their own judgment and free choice. She avoids the inconvenient fact that the UFW abandoned the workers over two decades ago.
     “We support their right to choose, but the ALRB staff and the UFW do not. Our sole message to our employees has never wavered: ‘We want what you want.’ There is now only one correct and just solution to ensure employees’ rights are protected. Count the ballots,” Gerawan stated.
     The administrative on the validity of the election began on Sept. 29 and has already sparked accusations of intimidation and witness tampering.
     ALRB Regional Director Alegria De La Cruz filed a report with the Fresno Police Department over an alleged incident on the second day of the hearing. The report accuses Gerawan supporters of trying to intimidate an ALRB witness during a break from testimony by telling him he could go to jail if he testified, according to a statement from the UFW.
     The witness, the first to be heard in the case, was testifying in support of claims that Gerawan illegally supported the drive to decertify the union.
     In response to the alleged harassment, approximately 100 UFW supporters held a protest rally on Monday in front of the building where the hearing is taking place.
     “The UFW has faith that after state prosecutors present their case and witnesses, and the company presents its defense during this impartial judicial proceeding, the neutral judge will conclude that the Gerawans are guilty of the egregious violations of the law with which they have been charged,” UFW National Vice President Armando Elenes said.
     Gerawan Farms, based in Fresno, has three other centers in Fresno County, in Reedley, Sanger and Kerman.
     Membership in the UFW has declined from 50,000 during the great grape strike of the 1970s to just over 6,000 today.

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