It was mid-morning on October 1, 1981, and Peter Solomon, a young California farmer, had 24 hours to decide what to do. Over half of the 40-odd workers at his small cattle and feedlot ranch in southern California had walked off the job, irate that an election they’d held to oust the United Farm Workers union had been blocked by state labor officials.
Solomon worked out a 24-hour deal with the workers to continue vital jobs like feeding the cattle while he considered their demand: rip up the union contract, or lose most of his work force to an all-out strike. “I don’t really want to violate the law,” he told the workers picketing the entrance to his Cattle Valley Farms, “and the law says I’ve got to continue honoring the contract.” But when Solomon emerged from a meeting with his workers the next morning, he announced that he ‘would side with them in ending recognition of the United Farm Workers as their bargaining agent. The union immediately demanded that Solomon fire the workers it supposedly represented-a demand that he ignored.
Nearly two years and half a million dollars in legal fees later, Peter Solomon is still fighting numerous charges of “unfair labor practices.” Should he lose, he will have to pay hundreds of thousands in “make-whole,” and his workers’ election to throw out their union will be declared null and void. Something is wrong in the state of California. Eight years ago, Gov. Jerry Brown signed into law a unique piece of legislation intended to protect the rights of the state’s farm laborers and “to bring certainty and a sense of fair play” to farming operations. Instead, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975 has embittered farmers and farm workers alike as they have seen their rights ignored and eroded in the name of this controversial farm-labor law.
Why has this law changed the face of agriculture and the fate of farm workers in the country’s leading food-producing state? Under every other piece of labor-relations legislation in the country, the role of the law is to remain neutral between competing interests, protecting the rights of both employees and employers. But California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) was undeniably tailor-made for a specific union-Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers. And the evidence is mounting that the state agency set up to administer the law has repeatedly used its power to promote that union- often at the expense of farm workers.
The law itself, in the words of several economists who have studied it, gives to farm labor unions “privileges that the most dictatorial government could only hope for.” Add all this up, and the result is that the United Farm Workers union has been able to gain unprecedented, inordinate control over its members and over the business decisions of farmers.
These are serious charges about an organization and a law that have the proclaimed goals of bringing dignity and justice to farm workers and peace to labor relations. Many farm owners and growers’ associations have been claiming bias in the law, unfair administration, and unjust control by the UFW ever since the ALRA was passed. I have spent some time investigating these issues, and I have found substantial indirect and direct evidence for the charges, evidence that can be evaluated independently of any growers’ interests.
When the National Labor Relations Act was passed at the federal level in 1935, it excluded farm labor. California's ARLA specifies the right of farm employees to unionize and bargain collectively and prohibits “unfair labor practices” on the part of employers and unions. The law is administered by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). ALRB agents at regional offices conduct union representation elections, investigate and rule on unfair labor practice (ULP) charges, and order remedies when the charges are upheld. Decisions may be appealed to the Board of the ALRB, whose five members are appointed by the governor with the advice and consent of the state senate.
Has the ALRB, in implementing the ALRA, been biased in favor of the United Farm Workers (UFW) instead of acting as a neutral arbiter? Many people are suspicious of charges of bias when leveled by farmers or competing unions. But when disgruntled UFW members claim bias, the matter must be taken seriously. When Peter Solomon’s workers went out on strike in October 1981 to force the issue of their union representation, one of the workers’ picket signs declared:
UFW = ALRB
ALRB = UFW.
And workers in other cases have told me that their attempts to vote out the UFW have been frustrated at every turn by the ALRB-and by law, only ALRB-conducted and -certified elections are valid.
Transcripts I have obtained of recent sworn testimony by former ALRB agents lend credence to the suspicion that the law is not being administered impartially. In a pretrial deposition in a federal court case, one former agent explained that at several regional offices it was customary. . .for the UFW to be there using typewriters, using phones, just being part and parcel. . . .I mean they were there all the time and they would review the files with the [ALRB] examiners and people and, you know, say, “Well, you should go there now, or you should do that. ”. . . It was almost as if it was their office.
Another former agent, when asked about the type of people hired to work for the ALRB, replied:
Basically there were a lot of people who were socially active, people who had been prior UFW members, who were UFW people. . . . You were rewarded for fur- thering the UFW muse.
And when asked whether a particular ALRB agent had shown bias in favor of the UFW, this person testified that bias was shown by the agent’s attitude, the way he answered the phones in the regional office. . . with UFW slogans. It appears that this involvement of the UFW has influenced the administration of the law from beginning to end. For example, in order for a union to organize the workers at a given farm, the proper procedure is to file a notice of intent to organize with the local ALRB office. This notice is to be accompanied by authorization cards signed and dated by at least 10 percent of the workers then employed at that farm.