Bill touts workers’ rights in light of Gerawan dispute

California Assemblyman Jim Patterson stands with Silvia Lopez, a farmworker who led protests against a state-imposed union contract at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming, at the state Capitol in Sacramento. Patterson has introduced a bill to give workers more rights in mediation proceedings.

SACRAMENTO — The more than two-year battle over a labor contract at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming has made its way into the Legislature.

A bill by Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, seeks to give farmworkers certain rights in cases when the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board imposes a contract mediation on a farm as it did with Gerawan in 2013.

Specifically, the legislation would enable workers to attend mediation sessions to gain an understanding of the terms of their contract and then vote on whether to ratify the contract.

Assembly Bill 1389 would also require the ALRB to nullify a contract if the union abandons the workers for three or more years.

“It gives farmworkers the tools they need so that they can have a say and determination in their own contracts,” Patterson said. “If you look straight out on the merits of the bill, it is a just bill.”

The bill comes as Gerawan and the United Farm Workers have been locked in a legal battle, as the fruit producer is challenging the constitutionality of the ALRB’s move to force a labor contract on the company.

Some of the workers at Gerawan are trying to decertify the UFW, which won representation at Gerawan in 1990 but never negotiated a contract. The union reappeared in 2012 but failed to reach an agreement with the company, and the matter was put before a mediator who hammered out a contract.

The issue has divided workers at Gerawan, many of whom say they’re paid well enough without a union. Workers voted in November 2013 on whether to be represented by UFW, but the ballots were impounded pending a state investigation of irregularities that were alleged during the petition drive.

A hearing before a state administrative law judge concluded recently after more than 100 witnesses testified, and a decision on the matter may be issued by late May or early June, said Paul Bauer, an attorney for Silvia Lopez, one of the workers trying to oust the UFW.

Meanwhile, the 9th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals is considering a motion to dismiss Lopez’ year-old federal lawsuit alleging the ALRB violated the civil rights of workers by refusing to count the ballots, Bauer said.

The attorney said it’s only right that workers should be able to learn about labor agreements that would affect their livelihood.

“I’m optimistic that legislators will be reasonable and allow this bill to be voted on by the Assembly floor and that it will make it through the process,” Bauer said. “It’s fair for farmworkers. It’s fair to workers to have this ability. Agricultural workers should not be singled out and excluded from this process that is open (in) so many other industry and public settings.”

Armando Elenes, the UFW’s national vice president, did not immediately return a call from the Capital Press seeking comment.

The wrangling with the union has apparently prompted a political and public-relations blitz by Gerawan, which last summer trumpeted its decision to provide what it claimed was its seventh pay raise for workers since 2012.

Gerawan also made $25,300 in political contributions in 2014, including $3,000 to Patterson, according to records on file with California Secretary of State Alex Padilla. It was the first election cycle for which Gerawan has made donations, according to state records.

Patterson’s bill, the Fair Contracts for California Farmworkers Act, is in the Assembly Committee on Labor and Employment. The lawmaker said he introduced it in response to the dispute at Gerawan, which is in his district.

“It takes no sides,” he said of the bill. “It simply looks at the circumstances that these farmworkers have been in with respect to the ALRB process.”

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