Politics & Government

Fresno farm dispute spotlights California’s ag labor law

It has been 23 years since workers at a massive farming company in Fresno, led by labor icon Cesar Chavez, organized and voted to have the United Farm Workers union represent them.

Certifying a union does not guarantee a contract, and in the decades since the UFW came to Gerawan Farming, laborers have picked and sorted peaches and grapes without one. As the years have passed, many of the Gerawan workers who worked to unionize have moved on.

It has been so long that, just as a contract finally appeared to be forthcoming this year, some workers clamored to strip the UFW of its right to represent Gerawan workers. While union officials contend workers were prodded by management, the workers who repudiate the UFW ask where the union has been all these years.

“We got surprised because we never knew the union” represented us, said Silvia Lopez, a 15-year employee who has organized the UFW dercertification campaign. “So many years working here, and then they show up and say they have a union there.”

The situation at Gerawan is raising questions about whether California’s landmark agricultural labor law, a signature achievement of Gov. Jerry Brown’s first tenure, is working as intended to expedite contract disputes.

Brown signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975. It was an era that saw a younger Brown publicly cultivating a relationship with Chavez and expressing solidarity with farmworkers. The law sought to quell farm labor strife by providing protections for workers and a legal framework for organizing.

But even after the UFW won its election at Gerawan, management continued to oppose the UFW’s drive for a contract, according to union officials. The stalemate mirrored stalled farm labor fights across the state, where more than 25 years after the act’s passage Democrats maintained that union representation failed to yield a contract in the majority of cases.

By the time Gov. Gray Davis was in office, the United Farm Workers and allies said the Agricultural Labor Relations Act had become ineffective. They called for mechanisms to resolve bogged-down contract clashes where management refused to negotiate.

Davis obliged in 2002. Over strident opposition from employers, he signed amendments aimed at ending the most stubborn farm labor disputes by allowing parties to invoke what is known as “mandatory mediation,” in which a state mediator listens to both sides and then dictates a contract.

“It is clear that that some parts of the system are broken,” Davis wrote in his signing message, adding that “in nearly 60 percent of the cases in which a union wins an election, management never agrees to a contract.”

Since the changes went into effect, the UFW has proceeded cautiously. With an eye on legal challenges and the occupant of the Governor’s Office, labor officials targeted smaller farming operations before eventually turning to Gerawan. UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said that organizing thousands of workers, many of them seasonal and thus transient, is arduous, time-consuming work.

“Gerawan is like an aircraft carrier,” Grossman said. “You don’t turn it around easily.”

Then something unexpected happened. Just as the UFW appeared on the verge of securing a contract for laborers at Gerawan, some of those workers rallied behind a different message: What has the union done for us lately?

The contract would provide wage increases, additional vacation days, and a clearly established process for dismissals. But Lopez said she is satisfied with current conditions at the company, and reluctant to see union dues reduce her earnings.

“Maybe some other places, they need unions,” Lopez said. “But us, we don’t need unions.”

A grape and tree fruit grower that employs more than 2,000 and is listed by Growing Produce magazine as the nation’s largest stone fruit producer, Gerawan touts itself as offering higher-than-average wages and side benefits like tuition assistance . Gerawan maintains that the more than two decades that have passed since the United Farm Workers won its election mean the union ceded its right to speak for workers and pursue a contract.

“I think most workers would have been motivated to seek a decertification for a union they’d never heard about,” said David Schwarz, an attorney who represents Gerawan. “Once (UFW) came in and said we have the power and are going to impose union dues or fees, I think it’s logical that workers wanted to have a voice in that before their pay is docked.”

One issue, in the Gerawan case and other disputes, is whether unions certified years ago can still prompt the mediation process. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates these conflicts, has rejected multiple claims from employers that a long period of union inactivity invalidates that union’s bargaining position.

“There’s quite a few employers out there who have encountered this situation where the UFW won an election and then disappeared,” said Howard Sagaser, an attorney who unsuccessfully argued that the union had abandoned workers at Bakersfield’s Tri-Fanucchi Farms.

Similar arguments fueled the push for an election to decertify the UFW at Gerawan. Supporters describe a genuine grass-roots movement by workers who say the UFW had abandoned them; the UFW points to recent complaints from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board itself alleging that Gerawan sought to suppress union organizing and illegally propelled the decertification effort.

“The company will say we won the election and disappeared for 20 years,” Grossman said. “No, we tried and it didn’t work.”

Workers, however, have voted on the future of the union at Gerawan. A decertification petition, filed in the narrow window in late October when a mediator was hammering out the final contract, was allowed to proceed. The results of the Nov. 5 election may never be publicly known. Ballots are cast but uncounted, pending some resolution of the representation issues.

The state board since has ruled that Gerawan must accept the contract. Assuming it is implemented – Gerawan plans to appeal – the contract will likely govern some workers who voted against the UFW as well as those who support the union.

“The Gerawans should stop spending their money in this anti-worker campaign,” a Gerawan worker named Rafael Marquez said through a translator, “and just respect the contract.”

Regardless of how the election shakes out, the fight over the UFW’s relationship with Gerawan workers reverberated all the way to Sacramento this year.

Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg , D-Sacramento, was drawn into the conflict after authoring a bill that would have expanded mediation, allowing it not just for an initial contract, as current law stipulates, but for subsequent contracts. Suddenly, an image of Steinberg was appearing in Gerawan-sponsored advertisements in which a narrator warned that UFW’s leadership “has forgotten their roots” by pushing contracts workers didn’t want. A voiceover urged viewers to call Steinberg and voice their opposition.

Steinberg ultimately pulled the bill after it had passed both houses, concerned about Brown’s reaction to a measure altering one of his signature achievements, and will pick it up again in the coming session.

“There are some inefficiencies in the representation process that tend to hinder farmworkers’ ability to organize when they want to,” Steinberg spokesman Mark Hedlund said.

Employers cite a flawed process that is stacked against them. While the mandatory mediation option applies to instances in which the ALRB confirms an “unfair labor practice,” it’s not always clear who or what is driving a stalemate. There’s no expiration date on when the transgression occurred; in Gerawan’s case, the UFW cited cases involving its 1992 certification elections.

“It’s a standard that isn’t exact,” retired UC Berkeley farm labor expert Howard Rosenberg said of trying to establish good-faith bargaining. “It’s hard to tell that without mining into the minds and motivations of people at the table. It’s a tougher standard to assess adherence to than whether there is a toilet or a water container out in the field when there is supposed to be.”