Gerawan Farming Inc., America’s biggest peach grower, thought it was rid of the United Farm Workers (UFW) 20 years ago when the elected bargaining representative of its field hands walked away (out of frustration, they say) and did not return—until October 2012.
The UFW sought to sit down at the bargaining table with Gerawan after the long absence, but the Fresno-area company refused and tried to decertify the union. That set off a nasty battle for the hearts and souls and votes of around 5,000 farmworkers that ended in the ballots being locked up uncounted.
Last week, after a six-month hearing and another six months of deliberation, Judge Mark R. Soble of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) tossed out the election and the decertification effort because of unfair labor practices
“The misconduct created an environment which would have made it impossible for true employee free choice when it came time to vote,” Soble ruled in a 192-page decision (pdf). The judge cited bad behavior by Gerawan, the California Fresh Fruit League and Silvia Lopez, an employee and the petitioner for decertification.
Gerawan offered workers a pay raise just before the vote and the Fruit League, a farmer advocacy group, illegally gave Lopez $20,000 to run a campaign against the union. The company allowed the gathering of worker signatures during working hours, a no-no, and anti-union workers were accused of blocking an entryway to work to facilitate the process.
The judge detailed a series of flyers and mailers “impermissibly” distributed by Gerawan between November 2012 and April 2013 vilifying the union. But he dismissed as unpersuasive allegations that Gerawan offered discount programs as inducements to shun the union, or made threats of violence and going out of business to cow the workers.
Gerawan claimed that Lopez made an independent decision to agitate for decertification and wasn’t hired specifically to do that job for the company. The judge was incredulous.
Lopez was the girlfriend of a Gerawan supervisor when she came to work for the company in June 2013. The judge did “not find persuasive” her testimony that she was physically challenged and found farm labor easier than sales or retail work. Lopez did not work much, if at all, in the fields.
Instead, she worked on gathering signatures to decertify the union along with her two daughters, also hired by Gerawan after she was. Lopez also authorized the distribution of up to 2,000 t-shirts emblazoned with the message “Say no to the union” at a cost of around $6,000.
The Fruit League paid for the shirts, along with bus rides for some 400 workers to an anti-union protest rally in Sacramento in October 2013. Gerawan could not legally do that. But, the judge pointed out, “The record is replete with constant communication between Gerawan and Bedwell.”
Many of the workers active in the decertification effort were relatives or household members of supervisors. In its defense, the judge said, “nepotism runs rampant at Gerawan.”
Company co-owner Dan Gerawan told the Fresno Bee the ruling was “wrong and disrespectful to workers and their right of free choice.” The decision can be overruled by the labor board.