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Growers Move to Gut California's Farm Labor Law

Immigrant Farm Workers Pull Leaves off Vines in a Coachella Valley Grape Vineyard

When hundreds of people marched to the Los Angeles City Council last October, urging it to pass a resolution supporting a farm worker union fight taking place in California’s San Joaquin Valley, few had ever heard the name of the company involved. That may not be the case much longer. Gerawan Farming, one of the country’s largest growers, with 5,000 people picking its grapes and peaches, is challenging the California law that makes farm workers’ union rights enforceable. Lining up behind Gerawan are national anti-union think tanks. What began as a local struggle by one grower family to avoid a union contract is getting bigger, and the stakes are getting much higher.

The Gerawan workers got the City Council’s support and, on February 10, the Los Angeles Unified School District Board of Education passed a resolution that went beyond just an encouraging statement. The LAUSD purchases Gerawan’s Prima label fruit through suppliers for 1,270 schools and 907,000 students. The LAUSD’s resolution, proposed by board member Steve Zimmer, requires the district to verify that Gerawan Farming is abiding by state labor laws, “and to immediately implement the agreement issued by the neutral mediator and the state of California.”

Verifying compliance, however, may not be easy. In mid-March a hearing on Gerawan’s violations of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) ended after 104 days of testimony by 130 witnesses. According to the labor board’s general counsel, Sylvia Torres-Guillén, and its regional director in Visalia, Silas Shawver, Gerawan mounted an intense campaign against the United Farm Workers after the union requested bargaining in October 2012. The two charged that Gerawan sought to “undermine the United Farm Workers’ status as its employees’ bargaining representative; to turn its employees against the union; to promote decertification of the UFW; and to prevent the UFW from ever representing its employees under a collective bargaining agreement.”

The conflict at Gerawan Farming has been building for 26 years. In 1990 more than a thousand workers voted in a union election in its fields near Madera, in the San Joaquin Valley, choosing the United Farm Workers. Five years later, having exhausted legal efforts to overturn the vote, co-owner Mike Gerawan finally sat down with UFW representatives. Instead of negotiating, however, he told them: “I don’t want the union and I don’t need the union.” That ended bargaining before it even started. Over the next 17 years, with no contract, Gerawan Farming grew to become one of the nation’s largest growers, exporting its Prima label fruit globally.

Hardball tactics towards unions in the fields have been typical of California growers. Although the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975 gave farm workers the right to vote for unions, the law had no teeth to force unwilling growers to negotiate contracts afterwards. According to University of California, Davis professor Philip Martin, workers were unable to win agreements in 243 of 428 farms where they’d voted for the UFW between 1975 and 2002.

In 2002, however, California’s legislature passed two bills that amended the original law. Today the ALRA allows a union to ask for a mediator if a grower won’t reach agreement on a first-time contract. Once the board adopts the mediator’s report it becomes a contract. The process is called mandatory mediation. Growers challenged this process and lost in the state court of appeals in 2006. The UFW has since used the law to negotiate contracts at several large employers, covering about 3,000 workers.

In 2012 the UFW made another demand for bargaining at Gerawan. This time, according to labor board documents, the company unleashed a sophisticated public relations and legal counterattack, not just against the union but against the law itself. In that effort, it’s acquired the help of some of the country’s most conservative advocacy groups and think tanks. Losing mandatory mediation would be devastating to the UFW. No real union can survive indefinitely without being able to win contracts, and through them, gain members and improve wages and conditions.

A Dirty Election

The UFW says it continued working with Gerawan workers to improve conditions during the 17-year hiatus between 1995 and 2012. According to Gerawan’s publicist, Erin Shaw, “The UFW abandoned Gerawan employees without ever negotiating a collective bargaining agreement.”

Nevertheless, from January to July of 2013, the company sat down at the bargaining table. But when bargaining went nowhere, the union filed for mandatory mediation.

In June 2013, while bargaining was going on, Gerawan rehired a former employee named Silvia Lopez, who then set about collecting signatures on a petition for a decertification election to get rid of the UFW. Companies can’t assist such efforts, but Lopez and her friends gathered signatures during work hours, while the company set up a supportive website, helpfarmworkers.com, that announced, “This website is [the workers’] effort to insure that their voices are heard in Sacramento, and they get to make their own decision.” In time Lopez would become the face of the pro-company, anti-union worker championed by right to work organizations.

Fifteen-year employee Severino Salas charges foremen told workers the company would uproot trees and vines if the union came in.  “They’d just plant almonds and pistachios that don’t need many workers. People were afraid to support the union, even though they wanted it, for fear of losing their jobs,” he recalls.

On September 18 that year, as the mediator prepared to issue his report, Lopez turned in her petitions. Shawver and his staff compared the signatures to the employee list and found there weren’t enough and that some were forged. The decertification petition was dismissed. A second decertification campaign was immediately launched. Gerawan Farming foremen stopped crews from going to work and demanded they sign petitions.  Then workers were put on buses to Sacramento and Visalia, to demonstrate outside the ALRB offices. Grower organizations paid the expenses.

Meanwhile a media campaign produced TV and newspaper stories alleging workers were being denied the right to vote in a decertification election. The labor board in Sacramento, whose appointed members have final say over the agency’s decisions, seesawed back and forth.

After Shawver and Torres-Guillén rejected Gerawan’s second petition, the board ordered the pair to conduct the decertification election anyway, despite the charges of company interference.

Workers voted on November 5, 2013. Their votes were impounded, however. Legally, they cannot be counted unless an investigation concludes the company had nothing to do with organizing the decertification campaign.

After the election, the ALRB finally approved the mediator’s contract. Gerawan Farming refused to implement it, and Torres-Guillen formally charged the company with violating the mandatory mediation law.

Gerawan, joined by the Western Growers Association, the California Farm Bureau Federation and the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, then asked a judge at the state court of appeals in Fresno to declare mandatory mediation unconstitutional.

According to veteran labor lawyer David Rosenfeld, who teaches law at the University of California, Berkeley’s Boalt Hall School of Law, “Gerawan has all the money in the world, and doesn’t lose anything by appealing.  In the meantime, they can delay implementing the contract for at least a couple of years.”  The company’s problem, he believes, is that the state supreme court is generally favorable to workers’ issues.

 Tomorrow, Part 2Conservative Groups Gather Around Gerawan; The Impact of Decertification.



(David Bacon is a California writer and photographer, covering labor, immigration and globalization.  His latest book is The Right to Stay Home – How U.S. Policy Drives Mexican Migration.)

All photos in this story taken by David Bacon

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  • Oemissions

    most people just want cheap food and could care less about the rights of farm workers, how they are treated and paid

  • Socialist Worker

    This is a family farm the way Wal-Mart is a family dry goods store from ‘Little House on the Prairie’. Second the original farmworkers union movement from the 1960’s and 1970’s won contracts and success before the passage of ALRB not after it. Working people can not expect help from the capitalist government. The purpose of the ALRB is to keep farmworkers tied up in red tape and legal wrangling at the courthouse. Unfortunately for us this is a problem throughout the labor movement as a whole today. Our power is in the strike and boycott not the courthouse or government. Once you win picket line they try to take back you victories by chipping away at your rights or reinterpretation of past rulings etcetera. They will pay higher wages when a union is organizing to discourage a vote for the union. Once the union leaves then down go the your wages.
    Just like the women’s movement has faced continual attacks on Abortion Rights. They aren’t trying to take Roe v Wade directly just a little bit at a time. Same thing here. A segment of the bosses believes that they can ignore the ALRB. They all want the workers to follow its directions and rules instead of striking. Three thousand people are not easy to replace and the picking season is only so long. My opinion. Forget the ALRB and go back to the strike and boycott until the bosses sign on the dotted line. If they try to weasel out of the contract then strike again and demand pay for striking. We can win because we are the majority not greedy CEO’s and Agribusiness pretending to be family farmers. We can only rely on ourselves not the bosses government, ‘impartial’ mediators or government committee stooges.

    • miserableoldfart

      I agree with much of what you say, but the government institutions that are in place must be worked on by the unions. Of course, the labor laws in this country are a joke, and the corporate hoodlums get around them with lots of help from high priced lawyers and purchased politicians, but the unions need to stay active and to hammer at the government entities that are supposed to be protecting workers’ rights as well.

    • 1MrPeanut2

      Funny you mention striking. In the history of Gerawan Farming, going back to 1938, there has never been an employee strike against the company. But since 2013, the Gerawan employees have gone on strike; against the UFW and the ALRB at least a half dozen times. Both entities are working together to force the workers into an unwanted, rejected, ALRB written labor contract that forbids the workers from organizing for or against a union, forbids the workers from striking – against their employer or the union, forbids them the right to negotiate or vote on the labor contract they would be subjected to, and forces them to pay 3% of their paycheck to the UFW or lose their job. Does that sound like something anyone would support? Yet, in the arrogance of the UFW and ALRB, they are stunned that the workers object to their forced unionization scheme. These Latino workers embrace their freedom and resent the UFW and ALRB trying to strip them of their rights and freedom.

      • ncooty

        Much of what you’ve written seems contradicted by the article above.

  • 1MrPeanut2

    This article is bass ackwards. This is not about a family farm trying to avoid a union contract. The family has said “if the workers want the union, we’re fine with that, we just want what the workers want. The family farming operation granted the corrupt ALRB unprecedented access to their fields, to train the workers concerning their right to elect a union. The UFW had access to the fields to organize. What has happened here is the Farmworkers have rejected the UFW & the ALRB. It is a historic fight: the workers against the UFW. There was a decertification effort initiated by the workers, over 3,000 signatures on petitions to hold a decertification election. The ALRB & UFW tried to stop the election, but despite their efforts, there was an election in Nov. 2013. Since the election, ALRB has refused to count the votes and has spent over $7Million in litigation to destroy the ballots and force the workers into an unwanted gov’t ordered UFW contract that pays them less, strips them of their right to strike, to vote on a contract, and their right to associate or disassociate with the union. The family farming operation is caught in the middle of this civil rights struggle between the workers and their oppressors at the UFW and ALRB. The workers have filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the UFW & ALRB. It’s all about the money that the UFW wants from the pay checks of the workers. That’s the real story here…

    • ncooty

      Again, much of what you’ve written here seems contradicted (and explained) by the article above.

      • 1MrPeanut2

        Bear in mind, Mr. Bacon drew a paycheck from the UFW at one time and is a loyalist to their cause. Bacon has not been forthcoming with the truth, just spin and fabrication to help manipulate public opinion into pressuring Gerawan Farming to capitulate to the ALRB & UFW demands. Quite simply, Bacon is lying. What I have written is both factual and verifiable. 3,000+ Latino Farmworkers are being treated to the 21st century version of Jim Crow law. The ALRB is in cahoots with the UFW to see to it that the Nov. 2013 decertification election votes cast by the workers is never counted. For if the ballots are counted, it would clearly expose the deception and collusion of the ALRB & UFW in attempting to force a gov’t mandated union contract on the workers. Any claim that the workers support the union contract can be substantiated by counting their votes, Right? So why do you suppose ALRB has spent over $7Million of your tax dollars to litigate the destruction of the workers election ballots? It is to cover up their corruption in trying to force Latino Farmworkers, over 5,000 strong in peak growing season, to fork over 3% of their hard earned wages to the liars & thugs at the UFW.

        • ncooty

          I wish I had the time to look into it further, given the troublesome allegations from both sides and the fact that the workers seem trapped in the middle by either account. Do you know anything about Mr. Bacon’s claims about Silvia Lopez?

          • 1MrPeanut2

            I’m certain she is employed by Gerawan, and in radio interviews, she said she has worked for the company some 15 years & her daughter & other family members work there too. That type of work is seasonal, they get hired at the beginning of the season, laid off when the work is finished for the season, rehired the next year, if they choose to work there. Now consider for a second: how could one little woman stir up all of the workers if in fact they are all backing the UFW? There’s no way, even Chavez did not have that kind of charisma. The workers are responding to an injustice done to them by the UFW & ALRB. Yesterday, April 14, 2015, at the fifth circuit courthouse in Fresno, the workers staged a huge rally against the UFW & ALRB. A solid 400 – perhaps 500 workers protested the UFW, as the UFW had to hire people to claim to be Gerawan workers to show support for the UFW. It was a pathetic showing by UFW. Fresno Bee has an excellent video posted under the title: “Two Factions Clash Outside Fifth District Court”. This video, shot by a liberally biased newspaper, clearly shows the anti-union Farmworkers filling the streets, while a handful of red shirted UFW supporters claiming to be Gerawan workers were few and outnumbered 50 to 1. Watch the video, read the workers signs and consider David Bacon’s story – is he factual or spinning, tweaking, bending, morphing, omitting and flat out fabricating a yarn to boost UFW’s chances of forcing thousands of unwilling workers into the union and paying 3% of their wages to the UFW? Bacon is a UFW loyalist. He should have mentioned in his story how UFW’s Marc Grossman physically assaulted Silvia Lopez on Oct. 2, 2013, at an ALRB protest by the workers in Sacramento. At that same event, Grossman tried to agitate the Gerawan workers by insulting them and calling them “wetbacks”. This type of thuggish behavior has not endeared the UFW to the workers…

            • ncooty

              @1MrPeanut2:disqus Thanks for the run-down. Useful as always to read a different view. I gather you’re quite familiar with the history of events. What’s your connection with the issue?

              • 1MrPeanut2

                I know some of the Gerawan workers; thru school, church, etc. We are neighbors & part of the same community. The real Gerawan workers are very upset that UFW not only lies to them and insults them at every turn (if you watch the video, the woman in the UFW shirt tells the Gerawan worker that she is not a Mexican – simply because she does not want the UFW) but that UFW is travelling the state, going to liberal school boards, ciy councils and board of supervisors with a cadre of people UFW passes off as Gerawan workers. Their purpose is to get resolutions of support for the forced contract. I’ve heard Silvia Lopez on the radio say that at one such occasion, she and other Gerawan employees went to challenge the UFW and could only identify 4, maybe 5 Gerawan workers out of about 30 people UFW paraded as Gerawan workers. That’s why you see in the rallies by the workers signs that say “real Gerawan worker”. They are also upset because UFW is pressuring companies that retail Prima fruit to stop buying the fruit unless the contract is imposed. Silvia Lopez wrote to the SF board of supervisors, ardent UFW supporters, and laid out her case. You should read it. In the end, she said “we are fighting for our rights, the UFW is fighting for our money.” Sums it up well. I cannot, in good conscience, stand idley by and watch my friends & neighbors be ignored by elected democrats, abused by state agencies, lied to, abused, assaulted, insulted and misrepresented by the UFW. I and others stand with them in their fight. Side note: the workers have filed a civil rights lawsuit against the ALRB & UFW that the federal court has determined has merit and will be heard. Date has not yet been set.

              • 1MrPeanut2

                The people affected by the ALRB & UFW action – the farmworkers – are friends, neighbors & customers of mine. ( I own a printing business & get a lot of walk-ins who need various services we provide). We have kids in the same school… As I talk to many of the farmworkers, they are greatly upset at how they are being treated by the state, as though they were ignorant children who cannot think for themselves. They watch the UFW put on phony Gerawan worker rallies to support the forced contract, and they know most of the UFW supporters are NOT Gerawan employees, but people hired by UFW to pose as Gerawan workers. (Some of the real Gerawan workers have asked them where they are from and they tell them the UFW has bussed them in from another area). They are upset that the elected democrat Latino caucus has turned their back on them. They are upset that around the state, democrat controlled boards of supervisors and city councils are passing resolutions to force this contract on them. I am passionate about seeing the rights of these farmworkers both recognized and honored by our elected and appointed state officials. Bear in mind: if the state can remove the rights of the least of us, it can remove the rights of all of us. And the fact that they are so willing to do so should send a chill up everyone’s spine…

  • Jesse Rojas

    Let’s clarify some things. First, you, David Bacon, used to be a UFW organizer, so no wonder why you are biased. Second, the UFW abandoned the employees for 20 years, both the UFW and the ALRB have no proof or evidence to show that they did not abandon the workers. The UFW has nothing to show of attempting to contact the workers, no letter, no phone call, no email, no text, no smoke signal, no nothing. Third, the overwhelming majority of the current Gerawan workers never voted for the union 20 years ago. That is why when the union came back out of no where, most employees didn’t even know anything about them or that there was a so called “contract” in place. Fourth and final, you have obviously failed to report on the countless demonstrations and protests that thousands of Gerawan farm workers have done asking to have their votes counted by the ALRB and to stop the UFW from forcing this contract against their own will. Just to make sure you don’t miss out on reporting the truth, here are some of the videos of the real Gerawan farm workers: https://youtu.be/CKCNvJIeBk4https://youtu.be/Fju2TAnbMBohttps://youtu.be/-C_QBv3GtEchttps://youtu.be/ZiHptLjwf7chttps://youtu.be/OLZUN6eoHmM