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 2: Conservative 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