Labor-backed bill may force union on farm workers

Labor-backed bill may force union on farm workers

Democratic state legislators passed a bill that could result in thousands of Fresno farm workers paying dues to a union that they may not support and abiding by a labor contract that they might not want.

Senate Bill 25, authored by outgoing Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, passed the Senate and Assembly along party lines. Yesterday it was enrolled and sent to Gov. Jerry Brown for his signature. There’s no indication yet what he’ll do.

gerawan22It allows either side in an agricultural labor dispute to enforce a state-written labor contract even when the other side is appealing it. The only exception is if the appellant can demonstrate by clear and convincing evidence that there would be irreparable harm from enforcing the contract and that the appeal would likely succeed.

One of SB25’s fiercest opponents is Dan Gerawan, whose Gerawan Farming has battled the United Farm Workers Union off and on for nearly a quarter century. His Fresno-based company is one of the state’s largest producers of peaches, plums, apricots and table grapes, employing about 5,000 workers during the peak harvest season.

Gerawan believes SB25 is aimed at his company, forcing it to immediately abide by a labor contract that was written by a state mediator after the company failed to come to an agreement with the UFW.

Our labor contract is written by the state of California,” he said. That is extreme enough that something like that even exists. Now with SB25 that so-called labor contract is implemented even without judicial review.

Calculated pro-labor power play

Steinberg acknowledges that his bill is intended to empower unions like the UFW in labor disputes with agricultural companies.

I think inherent in the dispute here is how one views the balance of power,” he told the Assembly Judiciary Committee July 2, 2013. “We honor Cesar Chavez with a state holiday. He is a hero to most Californians.

We celebrate his life in large part because there is an inherent imbalance between large, powerful employers and poor farm workers. A poor worker doesn’t have the ability to assert himself alone. But with the power of the collective, of the union, they have that ability to be an equal and countervailing force to the employer.”

But there’s a question whether the Gerawan workers want to be represented by the UFW, which would collectpercent of their paycheck in union dues; and whether they want to be forced to abide by the state-mediated contract.

The company, which markets itself under the Prima brand, touts on its website that its wages exceed the industry average with an $11 per hour base rate for field workers, while grape packers exceed $15 per hour on average.

Benefits for workers exceeding 1,200 hours per year include vacation and retirement pay. Other benefits include paid compensation for the Latino workers who want to take English classes, and tuition reimbursement and student loans for employees’ children.

“The workers are net losers under this ‘agreement,’ as the 3 percent dues or fees deduction ordered by the [Agricultural Labor Relations] Board is more than the 2.5 percent pay increase ordered in the contract,” said Gerawan via email. “The union will be enriched at the expense of the workers.”

On Oct. 25, 2013, Gerawan worker Sylvia Lopez filed a petition with the ALRB to hold an election to decertify the UFW as the workers’ representative. The election was held Nov. 5, 2013.

But the ballots were impounded and not counted due to numerous objections filed against the election. The UFW filed 32 objections, most of them alleging employer misconduct, according to the ALRB. Gerawan Farming and Lopez filed 20 objections alleging misconduct by the UFW and the mishandling of the election by the ALRB.

Gerawan workers back management, not union

The ALRB has scheduled a hearing to consider the objections on Sept. 17.

Gerawan workers have expressed frustration with the delay. On Aug. 26, more than a thousand Gerawan workers wearing shirts saying “Count Our Votes!” on the front and the First Amendment on the back marched in front of the ALRB office in Visalia, according to Gotnews.com.

“At the time of the decertification election, the employees knew the contents of the so-called contract when they voted,” said Gerawan. “So it is wrong for ALRB to displace the employees’ desires with ALRB’s and UFW’s dictates.

farm-workers-lgThe UFW sees the dispute quite differently. UFW President Arturo Rodriguez’s Labor Day message targeted Gerawan Farming:

On Labor Day, when millions of Americans celebrate labor, workers at Gerawan Farming should be getting extra holiday pay. But they’re not because their employer, one of the biggest grape and tree fruit growers in America with over 5,000 workers, refuses to honor a union contract issued by a neutral state mediator—after Gerawan refused to negotiate one with the workers’ union, the United Farm Workers.

Gerawan workers also didn’t get extra holiday pay on Labor Day last year. Or on other holidays such as July 4th of this year. By refusing to honor the contract, Gerawan is getting out of paying its workers millions of dollars. Prosecutors for the state of California have filed four complaints—like indictments—against Gerawan for breaking the law, that includes refusing to negotiate in good faith and refusing to honor the state-issued contract.

Gerawan needs to be made to obey the law and honor the workers’ union contract. Then thousands of Gerawan workers can get their extra holiday pay on Labor Day—plus all the other pay raises and benefits from the contract.”

The bad blood between Gerawan Farming and the UFW goes back to 1990, when the UFW won an election to represent Gerawan workers. But after one bargaining session, the union left and didn’t return for 20 years.

“The union has repeatedly refused to explain the 20-year absence, saying it has no obligation to explain it,” according to a Gerawan press release.

The UFW doesn’t explain its absence in its website discussion of the dispute, but does charge that Gerawan attempted unsuccessfully to have the election thrown out, and the state of California found that Gerawan illegally fired a crew of workers for supporting the union and unlawfully closed down six of its farm labor camps in retaliation for workers backing the UFW.

Millions of dollars hang in the balance

Charges and countercharges have flown back and forth between the two sides in the press, before the ALRB and in the judicial system. Millions of dollars are at stake, according to Rodriguez and former California Supreme Court Justice Cruz Reynoso in a recent op-ed in the Fresno Bee:

California lets workers call in neutral state mediators to hammer out contracts when growers refuse to sign them. Under the contract terms set by the mediator — not the UFW — in May, the majority of Gerawan employees would have received approximately $1,074 each, retroactive to July 2013. This was to cover paid holidays and wage increases reflecting a 54-hour workweek.

The new contract also would have handed other Gerawan workers a 2.5% wage increase, also retroactive to July 2013, plus 5% pay hikes in 2014 and 2015. For approximately 5,000 farm-workers, those back wages and benefits would have conservatively translated into many millions of dollars, just covering July 2013 to May 2014. Going forward, the contract would produce many millions of dollars more for workers over its duration.

Gerawan believes California politics and SB25 have stacked the deck against agricultural employers in resolving labor disputes.

“The picture is this: you have got a labor board staffed with political appointees,” he said. “Three board members appointed by the governor and counsel appointed by the governor.

[If SB25 becomes law] they have the right to write a labor contract, impose it and make it effective immediately with no judicial overview. This is huge. With SB25 no judge will even have a chance to look at it.

He was supported by Assemblyman Donald Wagner, R-Irvine, at the July 2013 Assembly Judiciary Committee hearing.

We have a circumstance where a union has essentially done nothing for 20 years,” said Wagner. We do rightly applaud Cesar Chavez. But I don’t want to confuse what we’re celebrating. The point of these labor laws is not to protect the union. The union is a vehicle to protect the works who deserve the protection.

“I’m hearing about these [Gerawan employees] who are worried about being disenfranchised under this bill. I‘m wondering why we have to turn contract law on its head … maybe merely to help the union.

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  1. Bill Gore
    Bill Gore 11 September, 2014, 08:49

    Driving through the central valley it has often occurred to me that the corporate mega-ag that dominates this once-fertile area is an essentially un-economic blight that self-perpetuates its own twisted status quo at the expense of everyone: consumers, workers, owners and, yes, the landscape and the soil. Consumers are fed bio-engineered ‘food’ that is grown in a toxic stew of heavy fertilizer, chemicals and totally dead soil. Want to know why central valley corporate farms will pay $70k for a truckload of bee hives to pollinate? Because bees (and humans) cannot survive in the dead poisoned moonscape.

    Workers keep the status quo going working in blazing sun in one of the most poisoned environments on Earth. Note that the central valley, even in areas where the water hasn’t been cut off to be allowed to flow out to sea to support a 2 inch fish (unbelievable) is truly a plantation economy with super high endemic unemployment and poverty.

    Owners, whther they are shareholders or families,are hooked on the cash flows generated by these zombie farms.

    Having said all this, unionization is just going to further entrench this messed up situation. It will create a class of well paid, hereditary union ‘leaders’ who will make sure that the poor working minions stay on the farm. It will incentivize mechanization by the owners, culminating in the near future in robotic farms. It will force the further consolidation and corporatization of farming, exactly the opposite of what farming needs: smaller, more decentralized, more ‘economic’ in the balanced scorecard sense of the word operations. None of this will benefit the people who presently work so hard for so little on these farms.

    These workers need to become OWNERS/operators. This will give them control of their destiny.

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