Labor official denies UFW decertification vote at California farm

Tim Hearden

Capital Press

A state agency has denied a petition by workers at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming to vote on whether to be represented by United Farm Workers. The union first won representation at the business in 1990 but has yet to negotiate a contract.

Capital Press

SACRAMENTO — A state labor official has denied workers from Fresno-based Gerawan Farming a vote on whether to retain representation by United Farm Workers, which hasn’t negotiated a contract for them in over 20 years.

State Agricultural Labor Relations Board regional director Silas Shawver ruled late Sept. 25 that petitioners failed to gather valid signatures of more than half the business’ roughly 2,600 peak-season employees.

On behalf of a group of workers from Gerawan, employee Silvia Lopez filed for decertification of the union on Sept. 19 with more than 2,000 signatures, but nearly half were declared invalid, said Paul Bauer, her Fresno attorney.

When Lopez later submitted about 380 additional names, about 100 could not be verified and some of the signatures appeared to have been falsified, asserted Eduardo Blanco, an ALRB spokesman.

“On sheets that we obtained from a couple of the crews, all the names were in alphabetical order … which would not be the normal way these things were done,” Blanco said. “We wanted to investigate that situation. In that process we spoke with farmworkers whose names were on the petition list and were told that was not their signature, and they provided us a sample of their signature.”

In addition, Shawver found that the company may have improperly participated in the petition drive, Blanco said. For instance, supervisors were reportedly having employees sign their petition when they went to pick up their paychecks, he said.

Bauer and Ronald Barsamian, an attorney for Gerawan, denied there was any falsification of signatures or tampering by the company. They said under state law, the ALRB should have allowed the election and impounded the ballots while the alleged irregularities were investigated further.

“While mathematically possible, we think it’s improbable that roughly seven or eight hundred or more signatures were invalid,” Bauer said. “We just don’t think that’s possible.

“A legitimate issue has developed over the signature checks by ALRB,” he said. “We publicly requested the records to do our own audit and agreed to an independent review and were declined by the board. … We requested a recount publicly and were denied publicly.”

One of the San Joaquin Valley’s largest growers, Gerawan Farming packs and ships its own tree fruit and table grapes under the Prima brand. Its website claims it has a reputation among farmworkers for having the best wages and working conditions.

The UFW won an election in 1990 to represent Gerawan workers, but never negotiated terms and conditions of their employment, acknowledged Armando Elenes, a national union vice president based in Delano, Calif. The union re-emerged last year but failed to reach an agreement with the company, and the matter is now before a mediator.

Elenes said it took several years for state officials to certify the 1990 vote, then the union waited for the Legislature to pass binding mediation and other laws before approaching Gerawan. He said Shawver’s 12-page ruling was “a jaw-dropping indictnemt on Gerawan” and that it proves a majority of the company’s workers still want to belong to the union.

“At this point, the evidence speaks for itself,” Elenes said. “Gerawan can say whatever they want to say, but they got caught with their hand in the cookie jar and refuse to accept it.”

Bauer said the petitioners plan to appeal to the full board, and they may file a federal lawsuit claiming their civil rights were violated when they were denied the vote. The worker has already asked a Fresno County Superior Court judge to rule that the UFW abandoned them, and that case is proceeding, Bauer said.

“We knew weeks ago when the workers were sending around a petition there was no way there was going to be an election,” said Barsamian, attorney for Gerawan. “We knew something was going to be made up at the last minute. In the meantime, they got over 2,500 people excited thinking they were going to have an opportunity to vote and decide their own futures and then they pulled it away from them.”


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