UFW Wins Fight Against Giant Cal. Farm

     FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – Thousands of farmworkers’ votes to decertify the United Farm Workers union at California’s largest tree fruit grower were thrown out because the farm unlawfully “tainted” the election, a judge ruled.
     Administrative Law Judge Mark Soble on Thursday found that Gerawan Farms, the state’s largest grower of peaches and nectarines, unduly influenced its employees vote to leave the United Farm Workers union in 2013.
     “As a result of the employer’s unlawful support and assistance, I am setting aside the decertification election and dismissing the decertification petition,” Soble wrote in concluding his 192-page ruling. “Given that the unlawful conduct tainted the entire decertification process, any election results would not sufficiently reflect the unrestrained free expression of the bargaining unit members.”
     The case stems from a labor dispute between Fresno-based Gerawan and the UFW that dates back to 1992, when the union began to represent the farmworkers but was unable to negotiate a contract with Gerawan.
     The family owned company claims that the union abandoned the workers for nearly two decades, only to reemerge in 2012 to try to negotiate a new labor contract.
     The parties were unable to agree on terms, leading a mediator to impose a contract that was approved by the Agriculture Labor Relations Board. The contract was thrown out in May this year by a state appeals court, which determined that the process violated Gerawan’s constitutional rights.
     Meanwhile, Gerawan workers signed petitions seeking to end their representation by the UFW, but the several thousand ballots they cast were impounded and never counted, due to complaints by the union that Gerawan had unduly influenced the workers.
     After hearing six months of testimony from 130 witnesses, Soble concluded that Gerawan committed unfair labor practices by knowingly aiding anti-union workers.
     Gerawan granted the anti-union campaign’s leader, Silvia Lopez, time off to lead the effort, and allowed pro-decertification workers to distribute literature during the workday but denied pro-union workers the same right, the judge found.
     When Lopez was “almost out of time to collect needed signatures before the 2013 peak season ended, the company allowed her to physically block the company entrances and to collect 1,000 signatures during work hours that day,” Soble wrote.
     In addition, Lopez asked for and received a $20,000 donation to fund the anti-union fight from the Fresno-based California Fresh Fruits Association, a farmer advocacy group to which Gerawan belongs.
     On the day the second decertification petition was filed, Gerawan unilaterally increased workers’ wages and gave them free pizza and tacos, which “likely created a celebratory atmosphere that workers would have unmistakably attributed to company joy over the decertification petition filing,” Soble wrote.
     Such misconduct “created an environment which would have made it impossible for true employee free choice when it came time to vote,” the judge said.
     Neither Gerawan nor the UFW immediately responded to a request for comment.
     Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, called the decision unjust.
     “If this ruling is not reversed by the Ag Labor Board, it will be a perpetual stain on their honor,” Patterson said.
     Patterson this year introduced a bill that would require the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to nullify contracts if the union abandons the workers for more than three years. The measure died.
     “These workers deserve to have their votes counted and their voices heard. I will continue to support them and Gerawan Farming as they continue to stand up for what’s right,” Patterson said.

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