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In cahoots with union, state crushes farmworkers

California apparently believes its farmworkers cannot be trusted to exercise their democratic rights.

SACRAMENTO¬†‚?? The California Legislature and the Brown administration apparently believe California‚??s farmworkers cannot be trusted to exercise their democratic rights. It‚??s the only plausible explanation for their efforts ‚?? via an administrative process and legislation ‚??¬†to invalidate the votes¬†of 3,000 Fresno area workers who took part in a union election.

Workers at Gerawan Farming voted on a labor contract 10 months ago, but¬†the Agricultural Labor Relations Board¬†refuses to even count their votes. Instead, ALRB ‚?? created by a 1975 law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown ‚?? argues the election is invalid and is trying to force the workers to accept a controversial ‚??no strike‚?Ě contract.

This seems inexplicable until one recognizes some relevant details. The workers almost certainly have voted to invalidate the United Farm Workers union as their representative. ALRB, despite its supposed impartiality and prosecutorial powers, seems closely allied with the UFW and worries that workers will strike against the union.

In a hearing last August, a Fresno County judge said, ‚??It almost seems like (ALRB) is in cahoots (with the union).‚?Ě The Legislature is in cahoots too, given passage of a bill by Senate President Pro Tempore Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento.¬†SB 25, now on the governor‚??s desk, that gives ALRB expanded powers to impose a contract over the objections of workers and employers.

The¬†UFW¬†won an organizing election in 1990, but Gerawan owners say it disappeared from the scene ‚?? reappearing a couple years ago, as it tries to boost a now-tiny membership. The company sees this as an attempt by UFW to bolster a flagging union budget ‚?? and to use a union-friendly administration and Legislature to get its way. Both sides are gearing up for the next administrative hearing later this month.

‚??Now the UFW has petitioned the ALRB to force¬†Gerawan Farming¬†into binding arbitration to impose a contract that would require employees to pay 3 percent of their wages in dues when fewer than 10 percent of the current Gerawan Farming workforce were employees in 1990,‚?Ě according to a letter to Brown from 12 GOP Assembly members, including Rocky Ch√°vez of Oceanside, who spent summers as a youth picking grapes in the Fresno area.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman says his union made ‚??several substantive attempts to negotiate with Gerawan‚?Ě during that 20-year period. So why not count the vote and see what workers in 2014, rather than 1990, say about UFW representation? ‚??In North Korea they have elections and the results are predetermined,‚?Ě he said. Good grief.

Instead of counting votes, ALRB now is suing Gerawan, claiming ‚??unfair labor practices.‚?Ě The bulk of¬†the complaint¬†involves the farm‚??s failure to inform UFW of various actions. The complaint at least makes clear the agency is all in on the union side.

Oddly, ALRB complains that ‚??Gerawan unilaterally implemented wage increases for its packing workers‚?Ě and that it implemented an ‚??employee discount program‚?Ě and offered its workers additional health-care benefits. Who gets upset when an employer provides extra pay and perks? How unfair is that?

As part of the complaint, Gerawan Farming co-owner Dan Gerawan was subpoenaed by an ALRB attorney who wanted to know about the company‚??s efforts to bring workers to Sacramento to lobby against the Steinberg bill (SB 25). ‚??Have you talked to them about SB 25 before?‚?Ě ALRB‚??s attorney asked him.

‚??We assumed that we had a right to oppose legislation that restricted our rights,‚?Ě Gerawan told me. ‚??We never thought that the very agency that is the beneficiary of the legislation would be allowed to retaliate against us this way.‚?Ě

Once again, the issue turns back to some rather fundamental rights. Can business owners lobby against legislation without being questioned about it by state officials who have the power to impose penalties on them? Are workers free to choose their own representation even if powerful state leaders don‚??t like their choice?

‚??It‚??s such an example of a paternalistic, patronizing attitude,‚?Ě said¬†Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno. But he sees encouraging news, with these newly energized farmworkers representing to him ‚??a very interesting new chapter in workers‚?? rights and civil rights.‚?Ě Let‚??s hope so.

Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at steven.greenhut@utsandiego.com.

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Steven Greenhut is the California columnist for U-T San Diego. Write to him at steven.greenhut@utsandiego.com.

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