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Gerawan vs. UFW

From the fields to the farm houses, new employee-employer relationships are developing outside the control of the UFW.

Dec 16, 2013

We would like you to read the letter below from Paul Bauer and ask yourself if you ever thought our country, the light of democracy in the world, would allow ballots to be uncounted in a fair and sanctioned election and then force both employees and employers into a union contract.

Letter to Families Protecting the Valley:

Farmworkers no longer equals UFW. There’s a new voice bubbling up from the fields. It’s a voice that is saying no to the union and this sentiment is strengthening among second and third generation workers. From the fields to the farm houses, new employee-employer relationships are developing outside the control of the UFW.

This new voice is starting with farmworkers like Silvia Lopez. Ms. Lopez is a single mom who has worked for Gerawan Farming, one of the United States’ largest stone fruit growers, for 15 years. Her mother and father worked for Gerawan and her daughters do, too. It’s a family affair and she likes it that way. Her employer gives flexibility so that her daughters can pursue their education and work in the fields. She has been called the new Cesar Chavez by the media and she’s bringing light to the UFW’s new playbook.

The UFW’s plan to go after the farmworkers at Gerawan Farming was foiled when they came across Silvia Lopez. After abandoning them for 20 years, the UFW reappeared to negotiate a lost contract and collect dues, as has happened to Gerawan in California. And that is not a misprint. The UFW was certified as the bargaining representative in 1992 at Gerawan after winning a contested election in 1990. The UFW, however, disappeared for 20 years and never attempted to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.

The UFW reappeared in October 2012 as though it was yesterday and demanded to negotiate the contract. The workers were furious since the thousands of agriculture workers who would affected by the agreement were employed at the time of the election. The employees felt abandoned and did not want to pay 3 percent of their dues for the same or less benefits. When they complained the government agency charged with protecting them, the Agriculture Labor Relations Board summarily dismissed them. How dare the workers not want to be represented by the UFW was the impression the workers were left. But this emboldened workers like Ms. Lopez to take charge of their own workplace by gathering nearly 3,000 signatures to request the right to decertify the UFW. While Ms. Lopez is humbled by the comparison, she is an example of a true civil rights leader. She has taken on the UFW and slayed the dragon that was blocking their right to vote on union representation.

On November 5, 2013, the historic election took place on whether to have the UFW represent them, but their votes remain uncounted. The ballots were sealed pending an investigation by Agricultural Labor Relations Board Regional Director regarding a complaint filed by the UFW. It is clear that this investigation is being dragged out and will likely take months or longer to resolve. And it appears to be taking longer than needed to allow a collective bargaining agreement to be imposed on Gerawan Farming's agriculture workers, which the ALRB forced the company to negotiate with the UFW this summer. Efforts to stop the agreement from being impoosed until the votes can be counted and the investigation completed were made, but to no avail. The clock is ticking and the Board and UFW know it - a collective bargaining agreement is soon to be foisted upon the farmworkers without their votes even counted and they will be forced to pay union dues or be fired. Then there is no telling how long the UFW will be allowed to siphon these workers' monies away to refill its coffers. But the longer the votes take to be counted and the longer the investigation is drug out, the more money the UFW projects to collect. Notwithstanding these challenges, the workers remain strong and believe that their voices and wish to not be represented by the UFW will be heard.

And, this reflects the new frontier in agriculture labor relations. Many of today’s agriculture workers are second and third generation. They are better protected and earn substantially more than those before them. They no longer automatically support the union.

There are new efforts being employed to silence this alternative voice. The UFW continues to use the legislative process to make is easier to organize. The UFW gains political strength with helping elect UFW-favored politicians and obtain appointments by governors in high-level, policy-driven positions. They are reenergizing and looking to ramp up efforts across the country.

The drama unfolding in California with UFW is telling of the play that is underway perhaps across the nation. While California has its own agriculture worker protect act, suffice it to say the UFW is poised and ready to use its political muscle to exploit legislative and legal avenues to strong-arm their way in.

So what can you do?

First, remain diligent in keeping apprised of new legislation being introduced in your state legislature and other policymaking fronts. Secondly, remain competitive with your wages and benefits. An employee’s pocketbook may be the single greatest factor of employees wanting to obtain representation. Thirdly, employees organize because they feel that their voices are not heard and workplace issues are unresolved. Make sure employees feel safe at work and can go to any supervisor to discuss their concerns. And, do not give unions a chance to use workplace violations to threaten litigation and hold you captive to demand concessions. Make sure you are compliant with the wage and hour laws of your state and local jurisdiction. Make sure you promote respect and professionalism at work. And lastly, be consistent. Workers’ terms and conditions of work should be treated consistently, such as leave of absences and disciplinary action.

Something special happened when the UFW abandoned the farmworkers at Gerawan Farming – a strong, respectful employee-employer relationship emerged. The UFW didn’t plan for that.

Paul J. Bauer, Shareholder, Walter & Wilhelm Law Group

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