Labor

Forced to Unionize: Is this Cesar Chavez's Legacy?

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"If Cesar were here today, he certainly wouldn't be supporting what's being done now, which is a union trying to impose itself on employees," 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. 

Gerawan Farms and some of its employees are in the midst of a fight with the United Farm Workers (UFW) union, which claims to represent Gerawan's workers, despite not having collected dues or bargained on behalf of them for more than two decades.

After years of failed efforts to unionize California's migrant farm workers, a massive grape strike started in the small farming town of Delano sparked a movement leading to the eventual rise of the UFW in 1966. The face of this movement was a man named Cesar Chavez, a man revered by labor historians as the bringer of "peace in the fields," who has roads, schools, and even holidays named after him. He's also the subject of an upcoming biopic starring Michael Peña.

But since then, much has changed in the agriculture industry and in labor politics. The UFW, which once boasted more than 50,000 dues-paying members, now claims fewer than 5,000. Yet with unionization in the industry on the decline, real wages have steadily increased. This might explain why many workers at Gerawan Farms have begun to protest—not against their employer, but against the union. 

Gerawan Farms employs more than 10,000 workers a year—more than double the entire membership of UFW—and points to county employment statistics to back up claims that it's an industry leader in employee compensation. UFW won an election to represent Gerawan Farms' workers in 1990. The company and the union had a single bargaining session, and then UFW disappeared from the scene, according to Dan Gerawan.

UFW refused to participate in the story and has not answered questions about why they disappeared for more than two decades. The truth is, they don't have to answer such questions. Despite its 24-year absence, UFW is still the representative union of the workers under California law. Two years ago, UFW initiated a process called "mandatory mediation and conciliation," which would force Gerawan Farms to impose a union contract and terminate any employees not willing to divert three percent of wages towards union dues. This did not sit well with the workers.

Silvia Lopez has worked in Gerawan Farms' fields for 14 years and raised her two daughters on her salary from the job. She once worked in a union shop and didn't enjoy the experience, saying it was like "having two bosses."

"I never liked a company where they have [a] union," says Lopez. "I don't see that I have to pay somebody to explain me my rights. I know my rights."

Silvia started a petition to hold an election to officially decertify UFW. She collected more than 2,000 employee signatures and submitted them to California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). Silas Shawver, ALRB General Counsel, rejected the petition.

"There were some serious problems with signatures submitted that appeared to be fraudulent," says Shawver.

Lopez denies that there were a significant number of fake signatures on the petition, but she nonetheless tried again, collecting thousands of signatures for a second time. Shawver rejected the petition again, citing allegations made by UFW that Gerawan management was putting pressure on the employees to oppose the union. ALRB, which acts as investigator, prosecutor, and judge in these cases, is pursuing unfair labor practice charges against Gerawan Farms in court in conjunction with UFW.

The appearance of collusion between the ALRB and the UFW disturbed Gerawan management and infuriated many of the workers, who staged a protest in front of the ALRB offices in Visalia. In a move reminiscent of the famous Delano grape strike, some even travelled to Sacramento hoping to have their voices heard by Governor Jerry Brown, the very same governor who created the ALRB while in office 38 years ago to create "peace in the fields" and act as a neutral arbiter between companies, workers, and unions. 

"Often what our employees tell us is, they don't trust the ALRB," says Gerawan. "They've cited Silas Shawver himself as someone they don't trust."

Following the protests, the ALRB finally granted the workers their election, to be overseen by ALRB and administered by Shawver. Prior to the elections, Gerawan Farms granted ALRB access to their facilities to conduct interviews and run private sessions to inform workers of their voting and unionization rights.

What were the election results? We don't know. Shawver has impounded the votes in an office safe, pending further investigation of the unfair labor practice allegations. He failed to provide a timeline for this investigation.

"What does that mean, to have an election and not count the votes?" asks Lopez. "Where is the right of the farm worker? Where is it?"

Lopez and her co-workers have filed a class-action lawsuit against the ALRB for failing to count their ballots. Gerawan Farms is also suing, alleging that mandatory mediation is unconstitutional. UFW continues to call for a contract to be imposed and, alongside ALRB, alleges that Gerawan has engaged in unfair labor practices.

"The main problem is in the ALRB office," says Lopez. "They are supposed to be neutral with us. But they are not. We can see that they are favoring the UFW organization."

Watch the above video for an inside look at this fight, and scroll down for downloadable versions. Produced by Zach Weissmueller. Camera by Sharif Matar and Weissmueller. Approximately 8 minutes.

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