Law & the Courts

California Farm Workers Fight Their Union — and the State — in Court

United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez (center) leads a march to City Hall in San Francisco, Calif., March 31, 2015. (Robert Galbraith/Reuters)
As they try to decertify the UFW as their union, Gerawan Farming employees have had to contend with another foe: unelected state bureaucrats.

In 2012, Dan Gerawan received a message from the United Farm Workers (UFW). The essence of the message, Gerawan tells National Review, was simple: We’re back. Gerawan, whose family owns and operates Gerawan Farming — a farm based in northern California that grows peaches and nectarines and employs more than 5,000 people — was confused. In 1992, Gerawan Farming employees indeed had decided to certify UFW as their bargaining representative. But since that election, UFW had been effectively absent: It never negotiated a contract between the company and its workers, and the only bargaining session, which was held in 1995, went nowhere. In the intervening 17 years, there had been zero contact between the union and management.

After receiving the UFW’s message, Gerawan entered his company into negotiations with the union. These hit a snag after just three months, however, when the union invoked California’s Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation (MMC) law, a provision of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act that creates a third-party arbitrator for union disputes: the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB).

Not long after the union invoked MMC, a group of Gerawan employees petitioned for an election to decertify it as their representative. Shorn of context, this might seem an unusual step for a group of farm hands to take. It’s no secret that agricultural workers in California tend to be Latino, occupy a dubious legal status, and earn compensation that pales in comparison with that of their employers. Life in 21st-century California recently has been compared to life in the sci-fi movie Elysium, in which earthbound laborers toil away as their plutocratic overlords luxuriate in low-Earth orbit; one might expect Gerawan workers to fight for representation to avoid such a fate.

The results of this election are set to become public in the coming weeks — but only after five years of bitterly contested legal battles, a bizarre turn of the ALRB from neutral mediator to active defender of the UFW, and several large-scale protests held by Gerawan employees to demand that their votes be counted. This is the rare labor dispute in which labor and management are fighting a common foe: the state of California’s byzantine legal regime.

UFW challenged the decertification push almost as soon as it began. It does not boggle the mind that a majority of workers would want to cast off the union — especially given that its numbers had been dwindling for years before it reached out to Gerawan, and that it opened negotiations by demanding that workers contribute 3 percent of their paychecks in dues. UFW accused Gerawan management of illegally instigating the push for decertification and forging signatures on the initial petition. At the time, an attorney for Gerawan employee Sylvia Lopez suggested that UFW supporters had deliberately forged the signatures to tank the decertification push, a charge Gerawan told National Review was more plausible than it seemed.

The ALRB, however, consistently came down on the side of the union. It disallowed the initial petition filed by employees to hold a decertification election. When a second petition was filed, it challenged that as well. When the election was finally held, it suppressed the results.

Yet as the ALRB backed the union, Gerawan employees held large-scale protests against both to demand that their ballots be counted. On September 30, 2013, for instance, thousands of workers walked off the job — not to protest their employer, but to protest the roadblocks the ALRB had thrown in their way. In response, the ALRB hit Gerawan Farming with an unfair-labor-practice charge — under the theory that it abdicated its responsibility by not disciplining the protesters.

The fight, which first came before an administrative-law judge, eventually reached the Fifth District Court of Appeals. In May, the court ruled that the ballots must be counted. “Several of the unfair labor practice findings relied on by the [ALRB],” the court’s opinion reads, “were unsupported by the record as a whole.” The UFW has vowed to appeal the court’s decision, meaning this fight is far from over. But for now, it’s vindication for Dan Gerawan, who was bewildered by the ALRB’s turn from neutral mediator to union activist, and for his employees, who found themselves fighting two groups of unelected bureaucrats: the ALRB and their own union.

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