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Farmworkers In Limbo As California Ag Labor Battle Heats Up

Apr 21, 2015

Every summer and fall, PRIMA brand peaches and grapes from Fresno-based Gerawan Farming can be found in supermarkets across the country. But the workers who pick that fruit are currently at the center of one of California’s biggest labor conflicts. FM89’s Diana Aguilera reports that the stakes for both the company and the United Farm Workers are high.

Most elections usually follow a somewhat predictable pattern: people vote on candidates or an issue, someone collects the ballots, someone else counts the votes, and then you get the results. But when it comes to California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, it’s a bit more complicated. A year and a half after workers at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming held an election to determine the future of their relationship with the United Farm Workers union, the votes remain uncounted, locked away at a nondescript office in Visalia.

“Where are the ballots? They’re in a safe here in this office,” says Silas Shawver. “We’re just keeping them here until the board says its time to open them and count them or time to destroy them, or whatever the board decides to do.”

Shawver is the regional director for the ALRB.

“I’m not going to tell you more details than that,” he says.

Dan Gerawan, the company's co-owner, stands outside of Gerawan Farming's office in Reedley.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

Shawver helps run the state agency that is investigating claims that the process before the vote wasn’t fair. It’s just the latest chapter in California’s largest ag labor battle of the last decade. It pits the UFW, founded by Cesar Chavez, against Gerawan, the nation’s largest peach grower. In the middle are as many as 5,000 workers, who both sides claim are being denied their rights, and the ALRB which is responsible for holding elections and enforcing the rights of workers.

"We want our employees to be able to choose from themselves whether to be part of the union." -Dan Gerawan

The fight has attracted national attention from groups on both the left and the right. The stakes are high. A win for the UFW could give the union a major membership boost after years of struggles, and cause ripples throughout the state’s multi-billion dollar ag industry. A win for the company would be a major setback in the effort to re-energize organized labor in California fields.

“It’s clear that there’s much less union activity today than there was 40 years ago in California agriculture,” says Philip Martin, a farm labor expert at UC Davis. “If the UFW were to win clearly this would be by far their biggest contract.”

The roots of the conflict go back 25 years. After an election in 1990, the UFW won the right to represent company employees. Gerawan and the UFW met once but couldn’t agree on a contract, and talks ended.

Dan Gerawan, who runs the family business, claims the union disappeared.

“During that entire time we never had any contact from them,” he says. “Not a phone call, not a fax, not an email, not a letter, nothing. They completely abandoned our employees.”

Then in 2012, the union returned to the bargaining table. That sparked a movement among some anti-union Gerawan employees like Silvia Lopez, to decertify the UFW.

“We don’t need the union,” she says. “They just want our money and we know that for clear.”

Gerawan employee Silvia Lopez has filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the ALRB. She claims the board interfered with the decertification election held in 2013.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

Lopez says she’s been working at Gerawan Farming for 15 years. She claims the majority of Gerawan employees don’t want the union to represent them or to take 3 percent of their paychecks in dues. She also says many current employees weren’t around for the 1990 vote.

“The ALRB office that’s supposed to protect our rights and let us have a free choice to choose if we want to be represented now they’re the ones who are forcing us to have a contract with the union,” Lopez says.

"What this is really about is for these workers to try to improve their conditions and try to get their union contract. And a company that is using its vast amount of resources and not allowing their employees to have that." -UFW's Armando Elenes

In November 2013, Gerawan employees got to vote on the union in a decertification election. But today, a year and a half later, the ballots still haven’t been counted over charges that Gerawan illegally promoted the election and tried to turn employees against the union. The company denies the accusations, which were the subject of a six-month long hearing. An administrative judge will soon decide whether the ballots from the decertification election should be counted.

Dan Gerawan says there is only one fair option.

“We want our employees to be able to choose from themselves whether to be part of the union,” he says. “They embarked on this decertification drive so clearly the only fair way to decide this entire thing is to count the ballots.”

Not all farmworkers agree with the anti-union sentiment. Maria Perez, who voted during the decertification election back in 2013, says she voted for the union.

“I like it because with the union you have rights, it’s not that I don’t like the company it’s about the rights, it’s about the benefits and it ’s about the workers.”

Perez says she worked at Gerawan Farming picking peaches for nearly ten seasons. But in 2013 she claims she started supporting the union and never got a call back to work there again.

Maria Perez claims she use to work for Gerawan Farming but ever since she supported the union she no longer had work with the company.
Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

“I'm still waiting for them to give me my job back, but they're not because they know already I'm supporting the union,” she says. “They don't want me there.”

The election is critical because if the UFW prevails a little known state law allows a mediator to impose a contract on both sides. The UFW’s national vice president Armando Elenes says the contract would give farm workers more protections and job security.

“When we were talking with the employees in 2012 they weren’t really complaining about their wages, they were complaining about workers conditions. They were complaining about being terminated, about being disciplined.”

Elenes claims the union never disappeared and wants the company to follow along. He says they have no other option than to have the mediator impose the contract since even recent talks with the company failed.

“After numerous sessions and negotiations the workers and us saw right away it wasn’t going to go anywhere and they said look we got to invoke the mediation law.”

Dan Gerawan is challenging the mandatory mediation law itself in court, saying it’s unconstitutional because it doesn't give workers the right to vote on the contract. His lawsuit and the controversy over the election have ignited a fierce debate over the future of ag labor relations and the role of the ALRB.

Critics like Silvia Lopez claim the agency is favoring the union, and its employees have close ties with the UFW. In February at a rally outside the state capitol, Lopez engaged in a shouting match with UFW spokesman Marc Grossman.


Lopez: “Why you don’t count the votes so you can count who wants the union and who doesn’t want the union?"

Grossman: "There’s a judge that’s been hearing testimonies since September."

Lopez: "One of your friends?"

Grossman: "No, it’s an independent state agency that has nothing to do with the UFW."

Credit Diana Aguilera / Valley Public Radio

 

The ALRB’s Silas Shawver denies the claims that the agency is acting unfairly.

“Our job is to protect the process, to carry out a careful investigation."

But Shawver says when it comes to the case it’s complicated.

“The judge and the board really has to be neutral. They have to look at everything from both sides and analyze all the evidence and make a decision. For us under the general counsel because we’re prosecutors we look at the evidence impartially when we’re investigating a case and then we have to make an assessment, once we make an assessment that there has been a violation then we’re no longer so neutral.”

And labor historian Nelson Lichtenstein with UC Santa Barbara says the ALRB exists to help farm workers organize.

“The point of the ALRB is to facilitate trade unionism in agriculture,” he says. “Now, they have rules and you can’t fight the rules but I mean that is the point of it. It was established for that purpose.”

The fight between Gerawan and the UFW has attracted national attention. Big farm organizations including the Western Growers Association are supporting Gerawan’s efforts. Other groups such as the Center for Worker Freedom have helped organize anti-union demonstrations. They’re associated with the conservative advocacy group Americans for Tax Reform. The UFW’s side has also found a sympathetic audience. City leaders in Berkeley, Los Angeles and San Francisco have all passed resolutions demanding Gerawan recognize a union contract.

Back in Visalia, Silas Shawver says the ALRB is just trying to do their job in an unusual case that’s at the center of attention in California’s agriculture industry.

“Has there ever been a case like this? I don’t know I think we had the longest hearing we’ve ever had but this is certainly big and I think it's unique as far as of how complex it is and there are I don't know how many different lawsuits pending and a lot of unfair labor practice charges. It’s a unique case for sure.”

An administrative judge is expected to rule by May whether the ballots from the decertification election should be counted. Meanwhile, the hearings have started in Gerawan’s case challenging the state mandatory mediation law and is currently in the Fifth District Court of Appeal.