Thousands of California farmworkers are facing a tough choice: pay dues to a union they don’t want to represent them or lose their jobs.
LOS ANGELES — The sealed ballot boxes now stored in the regional office of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Visalia, Calif., contain the votes of thousands of employees of Gerawan Farming Inc., the nation’s largest peach producer.
The workers cast those votes in November to decide whether to strip the United Farm Workers, the union co-founded by legendary activist Cesar Chavez, of its right to represent them. The union had been certified in 1992 but, after only one contract negotiation session with management, effectively abandoned its Gerawan membership.
In October 2012, the UFW notified Gerawan that it was ready to bargain again over a contract even though, according to the company, 98 percent of current employees weren’t even around at the time the union was certified.
“We thought it would be easy to get rid of the union,” Silvia Lopez, the employee who organized the campaign to decertify the UFW, told MintPress News in an interview.
But because of an extraordinary labor dispute that has roiled California’s agricultural industry like no other since Chavez’s early battles with growers, the decertification votes may never be counted.
And Lopez and thousands of her co-workers at Gerawan Farming could be facing the Hobson’s choice of having to pay dues amounting to 3 percent of their paychecks to a union they don’t want to represent them — or lose their jobs.
The workers are required to pay the dues under a contract that was drafted by a mediator under a controversial 2003 mandatory mediation law.
“[T]he dream of farm workers using democratic processes to choose their own future has become a nightmare for Ms. Lopez and her fellow workers whom the [California Agricultural Labor Relations Act] is designed to protect,” Anthony Raimondo, an attorney representing Lopez, wrote in a court document.
The union claims Gerawan has a “long history of egregious labor law violations” and the Nov. 5 decertification vote should be vacated because of election fraud.
According to the union, the mediated contract will pay most Gerawan employees about $1,074 in additional compensation retroactive to July 2013 and “many millions of dollars for workers over its duration.”
“Gerawan Farming … epitomizes the agricultural industry’s ongoing, entrenched resistance to unionization,” UFW spokesman Marc Grossman told MintPress.
What has Gerawan, other growers and some labor lawyers most concerned, however, is that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board appears to have sided with the union. In a case scheduled to be heard by a Fresno, Calif., judge on May 27, the board, which is responsible for enforcing the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act, is seeking a court order that would force Gerawan to implement the mediated contract.
Gerawan has launched a legal counter-attack, filing a petition that asks an appeals court to declare the mandatory mediation law unconstitutional or that the board exceeded its authority in imposing a collective bargaining agreement on the company.
“The very agency that was designed to protect [farmworkers] and bring peace to the fields has completely abdicated that role and is now actually against farmworkers,” Dan Gerawan, president of Gerawan Farming, told MintPress.
Legacy of Chavez
Silvia Lopez has worked in California’s Central Valley for Gerawan since 1998, picking peaches in its vast orchards for $10 an hour. The family-run company also grows nectarines and plums and employs as many as 12,000 people over the course of a year.
Like the vast majority of her co-workers, Lopez wasn’t around when the UFW was certified at Gerawan. And she doesn’t see why after its lengthy absence, it should now be allowed to represent her.
“There is no new thing that they offer,” she said. “It feels like they still think they’re in the 1960s when Cesar Chavez was fighting for [farmworkers’] rights.”
Chavez’s signature achievement, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, was passed in 1975. He died in 1993 and, to some, the UFW has been trading on his legacy ever since amid declining membership. According to a recent regulatory filing, it only has 4,200 members out of a total agricultural labor force in California of some half a million.
Donors are “sympathetic to the legacy of Cesar Chavez,” Raimondo, Lopez’s attorney, told MintPress, noting that most of the UFW’s income comes from donations rather than dues.
Chavez himself led the drive for union representation at Gerawan, intervening after another union initially filed for an election. It isn’t clear why the union walked away from Gerawan a few years after being certified. According to the UFW, contract talks broke down in 1995 after a Gerawan executive said, “I don’t want the union and I don’t need the union.”
“They’ve just made feeble excuses for disappearing for 20 years,” Dan Gerawan said.
By the time the UFW resurfaced at Gerawan in 2012, the law requiring mandatory mediation of a contract when grower-labor negotiations reach an impasse was in place. Any contract fashioned through the mediation process is not subject to worker ratification.
After 10 bargaining sessions, the UFW invoked the 2003 law, resulting in a three-year contract that would, among other things, provide a 2.5 percent wage increase, retroactive to July 2013, to workers including irrigators, tractor drivers and pesticide sprayers, with a further 5 percent hike in 2014 and 2015.
Gerawan Farming has strenuously objected to the mediation process, saying that having “abandoned” its members for so long, the UFW had no legal standing to seek arbitration and that the statute was only intended to “address extreme instances of employer intransigence in collective bargaining.”
“There were no negotiations to drag out,” Dan Gerawan said. “They didn’t exist.”
Grower-union disputes, of course, are far from unusual in agribusiness. But what has made the situation at Gerawan Farming so remarkable is the position of the workers supposedly represented by the UFW. Far from welcoming the mediated contract, they initiated one of the largest sustained union decertification drives in California agricultural labor history.
After the Agricultural Labor Relations Board dismissed the first decertification petition, a second petition drive collected about 2,600 worker signatures.
“This is not us against the UFW,” Dan Gerawan told MintPress. “This is our employees against the UFW and the [Agricultural Labor Relations Board].”
“All we want in this,” he added, “is what our employees want. They want the right to choose a union.”
The passions stirred by the fight at Gerawan Farming were on display outside a Fresno courthouse on April 10. While on one side of the street about 500 Gerawan workers had gathered, some of them brandishing signs saying “Count Now,” a smaller group of UFW supporters demonstrated on behalf of the union on the other side.
Two days earlier, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board had sued Gerawan for a court order enforcing the mediated contract, taking that action even though the votes from the decertification election remained uncounted in its regional office and Gerawan had asked the Fifth District Court of Appeals to declare the mandatory mediation law unconstitutional.
Inside the courthouse, attorneys for Gerawan, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the UFW and Lopez spoke at a hearing before Fresno County Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Y. Hamilton.
“We are not on the side of the UFW,” board attorney Alegria De La Cruz assured him. “We are here in the service of the state of California” to stop Gerawan from “breaking the law” by not implementing the contract.
The board, she said, had chosen to impound the decertification ballots because “there were so many problems leading up to the election.”
But Judge Hamilton put off a decision on the lawsuit, expressing concerns about the board’s neutrality.
“It’s a little bit disingenuous to say you’re protecting these workers’ rights [when] you’re blocking their elections at every turn,” he said. “You are wanting me to impose something that perhaps a majority [of workers] don’t want. And then you’re saying, ‘Well, we can’t know because we didn’t count.’ So it’s really kind of like a huge shell game you’re playing.”
“It doesn’t feel like you are being neutrally transparent and saying, ‘We represent all the workers, we don’t represent UFW. We want to know what these workers really want,’” Hamilton concluded before setting another hearing for May 27. “That’s not what it sounds like.”
Barry Bedwell, president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, which represents growers, believes the foundations of workplace democracy would be undermined if the contract at Gerawan was enforced without the decertification votes being tallied.
“It’s almost a forced unionization,” he told MintPress, adding, “This seems about as undemocratic as you can get.”
“Whether or not there should be a union at all should be decided by the workers themselves,” Raimondo, the attorney, said. “That’s what labor laws stand for.”
As for Lopez, she filed a federal suit in February alleging the Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s refusal to count the decertification votes and reveal the results of the Nov. 5 election violates her rights of “self-governance and freedom of association.”
Lopez says she and her co-workers are “very worried” about having to choose between paying dues to a union they don’t want or losing their jobs.
“But my co-workers say, ‘One day we’re going to win,’” she told MintPress. “They say, ‘We won’t have the UFW come. They won’t take our money away.’”