"Being allowed to choose your hangman doesn't mean the process is fair," says Dan Gerawan, co-owner of Gerawan Farms, one of the nation's largest producers of peaches, plums, and nectarines and a major employer of California farm workers.
His business is in the midst of a messy brawl with the United Farm Workers union (UFW) and the state's supposedly neutral labor mediator, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). Gerawan laughs every time he hears the word "neutral," and the hangman analogy is his morose response to UFW's argument that Gerawan had a hand in choosing which mediator would force a union contract on his employees.
This morning, the Los Angeles City Council weighed in on a labor dispute between Gerawan Farms, its employees, and the UFW by passing a resolution condemning Gerawan Farms.
Council president Herb Wesson and council member Paul Blumenfield attended a rally beforehand in support of the UFW, who had chartered two buses to bring in members from the Central Valley, some of whom had worked for Gerawan at one time or another.
"We're standing in solidarity with these folks," said Blumenfield of the UFW members before casting a vote in favor of the resolution.
But Gerawan Farms co-owner Dan Gerawan believes that the UFW pulled a fast one on the council.
"I think it's really sad to see the L.A. city council be used for PR this way," says Gerawan.
Reason TV covered this conflict, an unusual case in that a number of workers are fighting for the right not to join the UFW, though the union claims that this dispute is Koch-backed right-wing propaganda (Full disclosure: David Koch sits on the Board of Trustees for Reason Foundation, which publishes Reason.com and Reason TV):
At the heart of the conflict is the question of whether or not the UFW is the legal representative union of Gerawan Farms' workers. The union won an election in 1990 but never finalized a contract and has not bargained on behalf of Gerawan Farms' workers since then. Gerawan Farms' management claims UFW walked away, and UFW doesn't offer an explanation.
Last year, UFW officials began to claim that they had been the workers' representatives the entire time and demanded to have the original contract implemented shortly after the state legislature passed SB 25, a law allowing unions to force reluctant agricultural companies into "mandatory mediation." Governor Jerry Brown vetoed SB 25 last month and raised questions about the fairness of the process. But the case against Gerawan Farms was already long underway.
A group of Ger
awan employees, less than eager to reliniquish 3 percent of wages to an absent union, began petitioning for an election to decertify the union. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) eventually administered an election but never counted the votes, alleging unfair labor practices, such as encouraging anti-union behavior, on behalf of the company.
Since the production of the above video, the ALRB has filed five separate charges for violation of labor practices against Gerawan in a case being heard before an administrative ALRB judge.
That's right. The ALRB is hearing a case being filed by the ALRB over disputed elections administered by the ALRB. This is why Gerawan scoffs at the word "neutral." ALRB General Counsel Silas Shawver says that it's a non-issue because of a firewall that exists between the prosecutorial and judicial arms of the agency.
"We have really tight controls in terms of my ability to communicate with the board," says Shawver.
Sylvia Lopez, the Gerawan employee who led the petition drive to decertify the election, also believes that the ALRB is too cozy with the labor unions and is ignoring the thousands of workers who signed her petition.
"At Gerawan, more than 90 percent of employees don't want to be represented by the union," Lopez told the council. "I think the right thing is to support the workers, not the UFW."
The UFW claims that Lopez is nothing more than a stooge of Gerawan's management team and points to allegations in ALRB's unfair labor practice complaints:
Sylvia Lopez began her involvement in anti-union activities at Gerawan before she started working for the company in late June 2013… Gerawan Crew Boss Reynaldo Vilavicencio allowed employees Sylvia Lopez and Belen Solanto [Lopez's daughter] to miss work approximately 75 percent of the time during the period of approximately July 1, 2013 through October 25, 2013, without requiring justification and without employee discipline
"It was instigated by management. There's no question about it," says UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez of the anti-UFW petitions circulated by Lopez. "The growers are rich and powerful and refuse to obey the law."
But Gerawan says the company has nothing to do with the protests against UFW by his workers and says that UFW wants to strip choice from his employees to boost their rapidly shrinking ranks. He points to a clause in the new contract that prohibits protests against the union.
"All the information is completely coordinated and fabricated [by UFW]," says Gerawan. "They are professionals at this."
Gerawan could not provide employment records for Lopez, but Lopez claims she has worked off and on at Gerawan for years and that sporadic employment is quite common in seasonal picking work. Efforts to discredit Lopez and her fellow employees appears to be part of a larger UFW strategy to tie Gerawan to Grover Norquist, the Koch brothers, and other right-wing activists.
The Center for Worker Freedom is a subdivision of Norquist's Americans for Tax Reform and has created web sites and billboard advertisements promoting the anti-UFW side of the story, but Gerawan says they are not affiliated with the company.
"I have zero to do with them," says Gerawan.
While the legitimacy of both UFW's and Gerawan's claims still remain in question and will in all likelihood play out in court as documentation becomes publicly available, what is clear is that both state and local government are on the side of the union in California.
During the meeting, council member Gilbert Cedillo proved his union bona fides by regaling the audience, in Spanish, with tales of his previous work as general manager for the Service Employees International Union (SEIU). Wesson spoke with pride about designing the labor review process in question during his time as a state assembly member.
"I support the mediation process, because I designed it," said Wesson.
The only member to raise any objection was Bernard Parks, who wanted to clarify whether they were voting to show support of the process or to tell Gerawan Farms to implement the disputed contract. Cedillo argued that the process had already run its course and that the contract should be implemented, despite the fact that the legal hearing will not conclude until early January.
"Is it binding?" asked Parks.
"Well, all things are binding until they're not," answered Cedillo.
Before the final vote, council member Paul Koretz, the bill's author, amended the language to make clear that the council was indeed voting to support implementation of the contract.
Because the lawsuit against Gerawan Farms involves state and federal law, the resolution is purely symbolic and of no legal consequence.