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Katy Grimes

What’s good for union is bad for laborer’s civil rights

Many have recently observed there appears to be collusion between the United Farm Workers union and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, in an effort to boost the shrinking labor union by targeting one of the biggest non-union farming operations in the state.

Should they succeed in unionizing Gerawan Farming employees, adding the 5,000 Gerawan farmworkers would more than double union membership, and certainly boost the UFW’s economic status, and the ALRB’s worth to the state.

Conundrum

Several thousand-farm workers in California’s Central Valley have so far failed to get the state agriculture labor board to count their votes on a standard, legal labor union issue.

Why? Because the vote the farm workers took was to de-certify the United Farm Workers labor union.

Flash forward to the present

With the five-months-long ALRB refusal to count the votes, the workers are growing very frustrated waiting for the ALRB to uphold state law.

Yet, the five thousand farm employees from Gerawan Farming in Fresno are confident of a win. They have traveled twice to the State Capitol to meet with Gov. Jerry Brown, and to attend Agricultural Labor Relations Board meetings.

And twice they have been flagrantly disrespected and maligned by state government officials.

Decertification math is hard

The vote to decertify the UFW at Gerawan Farming was taken in November – more than five months ago – and that election only took place after organizers were forced three times by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to collect farmworker signatures authorizing the election.

The workers have asked for an election, and three times the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board sided with the UFW against the workers and said “no.”

A Visalia regional director with the ALRB dismissed both signature-gathering efforts after claiming some of the signatures collected were forged.

But the workers did not give up; they collected a new batch of 2,000 signatures to call for the decertification election, and finally prevailed.

Habla en ingles

More than 100 farm workers took time off from work Tuesday, following a weekend car wash fundraiser, to pay for travel to Sacramento to attend the Agriculture Board’s monthly meeting.

Once the meeting started, many of the farm workers stood up to address the Board and ask why their votes had not been counted from the November decertification election.

We don’t want to be unionized,” one woman said.

“We like our employer,” another worker said. “The UFW will take three-percent of our wages,” she said.

“We deserve the right to choose,” Silvia Lopez said. Lopez has become the leader and voice of the thousands of farm workers in their fight to decertify the UFW.

Because of her relentless championing of the rights of farm workers, Silvia Lopez has been called the new Cesar Chavez. Ironically, she is fighting against the union Chavez co-founded.

Lopez, a 15-year farm worker with Gerawan Farming, said the ALRB claimed the thousands of signatures she gathered on the first petition were forged. But Lopez (pictured in front of the governor’s office) said she personally collected nearly all of the 2,000 signatures.

I spent several hours with Lopez in September, and again briefly at the Tuesday meeting. She is serious and thoughtful. She said she just wants the workers to be able to continue to work at Gerawan Farming under the optimum conditions they currently enjoy — without interference from the UFW. And, she said it was important the ALRB members hear from each of the farm workers, in order to fully understand the civil rights abuses they have been suffering in this fight with the UFW.

But the ALRB members made it abundantly clear at Tuesday’s meeting they really didn’t want to hear what the workers had to say.

Paul M. Starkey, Special ALRB Board Counsel and acting secretary, told the workers he wanted them to speak English. “Habla en inglés,” Starkey said. But the workers had several English-speaking translators with them to translate. And given that the ALRB is a California “agricultural labor relations” board, most who attended the meeting expected some of the board members to understand Spanish.

After several farm workers had spoken, Board Chairman William Gould told the 100+ farm workers that unless each person had something new to say, they were done talking.

He then moved to the next item on his agenda.

ALRB in disarray

Interestingly, up until very recently, there was no quorum of ALRB Board members until the recent appointment of William B. Gould, by Gov. Jerry Brown. Gould is a former chairman of the National Labor Relations Board, 1994 to 1998.

But even in absence of a quorum, the ALRB had been issuing orders it had no quorum to authenticate.

Following the November UFW decertification election, while Gerawan Farming was still awaiting the results of the November 5 employee election to decertify the UFW, the UFW pulled a slippery move and requested a temporary restraining order to force Gerawan into collective bargaining anyway.

This attempt to force unionization on the Gerawan employees was helped along by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which ordered the collective bargaining, while the Board simultaneously has been sitting on the employee election results.

Decertification a long and winding road

An ALRB regional director in Visalia also claimed several of Gerawan’s crew bosses violated labor laws in helping to circulate the decertification petition among farmworkers. They had circulated a petition to call for a de-certification election, but the director

Longtime Gerawan Farming employee Silvia Lopez, collected signatures to petition the Agricultural Labor Relations Board for decertification of the UFW. She turned in 2,000 signatures Sept. 19. The ALRB rejected her petition and said most of the signatures were forged.

Undaunted, Lopez turned in another 3,000 signatures Friday, Oct. 25.

Within 24 hours, Visalia ALRB Director Silas Shawver said Lopez turned the petition and signatures in too late to be valid. But under pressure and scrutiny, the Sacramento ALRB overturned Shawver’s decision and said the workers could have an election, within seven days of submitting the signatures.

But by Oct. 31, Shawver announced his decision to block the decertification election.

The United Farm Workers labor union has come under hard times since legendary co-founder Cesar Chavez died in 1993. As the Nation magazine reported in 2012, mismanagement has caused the union’s membership to nosedive from a peak of 50,000 to less than 4,000 today.

The UFW won an election to organize Gerawan Farming more than 20 years ago but has been silent ever since. Certified by the ag labor board in 1990, the UFW held only one meeting a couple of years later, then abandoned the farm due to lack of worker support. There was never a contract.

So when the UFW, needing new dues-paying members, showed up in October 2012, claiming Gerawan Farming’s 5,000 employees were de facto union members, the workers were furious.

 

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