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Wednesday, June 12, 2024 | Back issues
Courthouse News Service Courthouse News Service

Judge denies beet sugar factory request to bust union strike

The Spreckels Sugar Company says striking workers at two plants haven't played by the rules of a collective bargaining agreement.

SAN DIEGO (CN) — Union workers at a beet sugar factory in California’s Imperial Valley can continue their strike after a federal judge in San Diego denied their employer's request to stop them.

Workers represented by United Food and Commercial Workers Local 135 at the Spreckels Sugar Company in the city of Brawley and another facility in Imperial — one of California’s major agricultural hubs — went on strike March 9 claiming the company unfairly went about processing a rollover of the workers' pension plans into a 401(k) retirement plan that cost workers anywhere from $5,000 to $50,000 in benefits, according to UFCW spokesperson Brent Beltran.

The union agreed to the rollover from a pension plan to a 401(k) retirement plan itself in a collective bargaining agreement in 2021, but once the process started the union says the company’s delay in terminating the pension plans decreased the worth of each worker's benefits, and the company didn’t negotiate with them in good faith.     

UFCW filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board in late February before the strike, claiming Spreckels hadn’t been negotiating in good faith, and then another accusing the company of interfering with workers’ right to engage in a unfair labor practices strike.

Beltran said that this is the first time UFCW has gone on strike over unfair labor practices.

Before the strike Spreckels filed a request for an emergency preliminary injunction in federal court against UFCW to try to break the impending strike on grounds that the union didn’t stick to the rules for dealing with grievances set by the collective bargaining agreement and not giving any specific actions or conduct that the company did to cause the grievance. The strike, the company’s motion said, would cause the company “immediate and irreparable injury” in terms of loss of business, reputation, and customer goodwill. 

U.S. District Judge Gonzalo Curiel denied the request Tuesday.

“An arbitrator may make a determination on whether an employer’s conduct constitutes an unfair labor practice and the NLRB may interpret a CBA, but ultimately, the interpretation of the CBA falls on the arbitrator and a determination on whether conduct constitutes an unfair labor practice falls on the board,” Curiel wrote.

Spreckels spokesperson Jon Austin said the company was "reviewing the ruling and looking at our options,” including waiting for a hearing in front of the National Labor Relations Board or taking further legal action.

In a statement, UFCW Local 135 president Todd Walters said, “The judge has refused to allow Spreckels to break our strike. This forces the company to have to negotiate with the workers. The workers will continue to picket until we can bargain a solution to the issues that caused the ULP [unfair labor practice] strike."

Beltran said workers are committed to being on strike for four weeks. If their issues aren’t resolved by then “we'll see what steps to take next,” he said. 

The work the union members are doing is strenuous, especially in the Imperial Valley where temperatures reach into 110s in the summer, Beltran said. 

“They want to go back to work, but they want to be treated fairly,” Beltran said. 

Categories / Employment, Regional

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