Fifty-three years after Cesar Chavez founded the United Farm Workers in California, the labor union is facing resistance from laborers at the largest U.S. peach farm, who are rallying against union representation and the state bureaucrats who refuse to count their votes to decertify the collective.
Gerawan Farming, a 12,000-acre peach farm in California’s Central Valley, began a standoff with the UFW after the union demanded a new contract in 2012. The next year, co-owner Dan Gerawan’s workers petitioned the state to hold an election on whether to decertify the union.
Workers gathered petition signatures to conduct a vote by secret ballot to determine whether 3,000 Gerawan laborers wanted the UFW as their collective bargaining representative. The vote’s results are being held in confidence by a state board, as the UFW insists that Mr. Gerawan violated rules and pressured his employees to vote out of the union.
While state regulators hear the complaints, the UFW — through a state process known as mandatory mediation and conciliation — has been trying to impose a contract on Gerawan Farming that would allow the union to collect 3 percent of every worker’s checks as dues.
The farm challenged the UFW contract in court and lost. However, an appeals court in April ruled in the farm’s favor, declaring that the state’s process is unconstitutional and that a state agency cannot impose a union contract on workers without the farm’s consent or the workers’ votes.
Still, the workers’ votes continue to be held in confidence. Since the November 2013 election, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board has impounded the votes while it sorts out accusations of fraud.
The matter now is the subject of an Agricultural Labor Relations Board administrative law hearing, focused on unfair labor practices and election objections. Some Gerawan workers also have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the board in U.S. District Court.
Matt Patterson, executive director of the Washington-based Center for Work Freedom, said the UFW’s accusations of undue influence are false and the Gerawan workers’ mass demonstrations against union control is evidence of that.
“The union is claiming that the company intimidated the workers into voting against the union. Last August, we bused 1,000 of these workers from Fresno to Visalia, and we rallied against the regional director’s office,” Mr. Patterson told The Washington Times in a telephone interview. “Since then, we’ve done a half-dozen of these, and it’s pretty clear by now you can’t get hundreds of workers to come out to these things and claim they’re being bullied.
“These workers know what they’re doing. They don’t want to give their money to the unions, and even more important, it’s about freedom. The union wants 3 percent of their pay,” Mr. Patterson said. “From the worker’s point of view, they come to America for freedom, and then the union and the state of California basically come in and force them into it.”
Several requests to interview a UFW representative for this report were not answered.
Gerawan Farming’s laborers have accused the Agricultural Labor Relations Board of not honoring the true intent of the California Labor Relations Act, the 1975 law enacted to guarantee collective bargaining rights and worker freedom of association.
“The only thing worse [than] not being able to vote is being able to vote and then those votes not being counted,” said Barry Bedwell, president of the California Fresh Fruit Association, a voluntary, nonprofit public policy association that represents fruit farmers at the legislative level. “We continue to stress that the California Labor Relations Act is designed for the employee — not the employer, but not the union either.
“But clearly, there are some people in the government that feel that whether the workers know it or not, they’re better with union representation,” Mr. Bedwell said. “We say this is America, that this is not our decision, and the union has to show value just like anyone else. Look at the true intent of the law: This is what the employees want, and just because a union gets voted down doesn’t mean there’s something wrong.”
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board declined to respond, saying it does not comment on pending matters.
The conflict has raised tensions in California’s San Joaquin Valley, pitting union activists against the very workers they purport to champion.
In a recent incident, hundreds of Gerawan workers showed up in front of Stanford Mansion in Sacramento, where Gov. Jerry Brown and Agricultural Labor Relations Board members were celebrating the agency’s 40th anniversary. When Gerawan worker-activist Sylvia Lopez tried to take a picture of herself with the governor, she was blocked by UFW co-founder and longtime Brown ally Dolores Huerta.
Ms. Lopez has become widely recognized as the face of the Gerawan decertification effort and has gained the respect of some in the California State Legislature.
State Assemblyman Jim Patterson, a Republican, once proposed a bill that would have guaranteed worker-witnesses the right to attend Agricultural Labor Relations Board hearings.
“It’s very clear that if workers decide in favor of the UFW, then ALRB is on their side, but if they think for themselves the ALRB is not independent. It’s basically operating at the behest of the UFW, and they are attempting to force workers to do what they tell them to do,” Mr. Patterson said. “If they should have the independence of deciding differently, they have their constitutional rights stripped.”
The 2013 decertification election was held after Gerawan workers discovered that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board was using the mandatory mediation and conciliation practice, which could have resulted in imposing a union contract on the workers. The process has been used occasionally when both sides of a dispute fail to come to an agreement.
“When the workers found out they were going to have a contract forced on them that would make them pay dues, they went to Modesto to participate in the MMC hearing but were barred at the door,” said Anthony Raimondo, a California lawyer representing Ms. Lopez. “The board issued an order to implement the contract, and so Gerawan filed a petition for review with the California Court of Appeals.”
Shortly after Gerawan filed the petition, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board sought an injunction in California Superior Court.
“We intervened in that proceeding on behalf of the workers,” Mr. Raimondo said. “The court saw through the collusion between the general counsel of the ALRB and the UFW, and the judge refused to issue the injunction.”
California’s 5th District Court of Appeal has since declared mandatory mediation and conciliation unconstitutional, and the matter will undergo judicial review by the state Supreme Court.
Mr. Patterson said the unions are losing their grip over immigrant workers.
“The UFW is afraid of this is because it demonstrates where the relationships of the workers and the growers have evolved to in the beginning of the 21st century,” he said. “It is scaring them to death because growers and workers are finding a way to work together and they are leaving the UFW as a result.”
Mr. Raimondo expressed concerns about reported close ties between the state board and the union.
“I don’t think the ALRB process is a fair one because the agency depends on this union for its survival,” he said. “The UFW is essentially the only union that uses this law. The vitality of the union is linked directly to the budget for the agency. We have numbers that show since these disputes with Gerawan started, the ALRB budget and staff have more than doubled.”