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.