Gerawan workers protest UFW as court date looms

Gerawan workers protest UFW as court date looms

Gerawan Farming home pageA fresh twist has arisen in the drama surrounding Gerawan Farms’ dispute with United Farm Workers.

The long-running controversy, which pitted Gerawan and its workers against the UFW and California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, has been developing fast.

The primary action was that a legal track has been established. On Sept. 29, in Fresno U.S. District Court, Judge Lawrence J. O’Neill will decide whether the decertification election held by Gerawan’s workers will proceed. The ballots cast in that election were seized and impounded by the ALRB, which has refused to make vote tallies public pending a review of what UFW has claimed are disqualifying irregularities.

Specifically, O’Neill narrowed the constitutional issue down to whether or not Gerawan workers’ First Amendment rights to freedom of association were being unlawfully infringed.

The lawsuit was filed by longtime Gerawan employee Silvia Lopez, who has been leading the workers against the UFW. The suit charges that the ALRB review has not proceeded in a timely manner. In fact, since the workers’ ballots were cast, the ALRB chose to use the delay it created to appoint a special mediator authorized by law to rewrite the labor contract negotiated between Gerawan and its employees.

Since California law gives the ALRB the power to enforce the mediator’s unilateral revisions against agriculture employers, Gerawan would ordinarily have been obliged to accept the new contract, which recognizes the UFW as the certified union representative of its workers. Gerawan had already been required to re-enter into negotiations with the UFW after the union’s decades-long absence from the bargaining table. (In the early 1990s, when virtually no current employees worked at Gerawan, the UFW was certified.) Now, however, because the workers themselves oppose the mediator’s new contract, the matter has wound up in the courts.

A political storm brews

With a full month to go before the validity of the decertification election is determined, the UFW, Gerawan and the workers have already become national news. Media attention centered recently on a fresh worker rally in Visalia, CA, where the ALRB’s Central Valley office is located.

That effort drew on the logistical support of the Center for Worker Freedom, and organization affiliated with Americans for Tax Reform, best known for getting legislators to sign “no new taxes” pledges. During the rally, Lopez succeeded in delivering a petition to the ALRB, which could figure significantly into the evidentiary findings arrived at during the September hearing.

At the same time, however, the UFW used the rally as an occasion to ratchet up its own national public relations campaign. In a statement, UFW Vice President Armando Elenes charged “national chieftains of the radical right” had planned and bankrolled “slick media campaigns” on behalf of Gerawan that relied on a “cynical outreach to Latinos.” Meanwhile, UFW spokesman Marc Grossman told CNBC the union believed Gerawan had unlawfully interfered in its interaction with workers.

But Grossman conceded the UFW did not face a slam-dunk moment in the Sept. 29 hearing. With the judge set to hear sworn testimony from a string of witnesses, the hearing “could go on for months,” he said. In the interim, both sides in the controversy seem to have determined to make the most of the delay, politically speaking.

Big implications

Although California law makes an adverse ruling against Gerawan difficult to appeal, the novel constitutional issues raised by the Lopez suit against the ALRB have given workers’ objections to the UFW a broader national relevance. Potentially, they could be seen to raise fundamental issues about the constitutionality of prevalent union certification processes.

Unions have long held an interest in keeping re-certification votes as uncommon as possible. Generously interpreted, a First Amendment right to workers’ freedom of association could be held to require much more frequent votes of that kind. That would be reflective of the employee turnover on display at Gerawan, where almost no current employees had an opportunity to vote on whether to accept UFW as their representative.

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ALRBUFWGerawanJames Poulos

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