Farmworkers at Gerawan Farms, a Fresno, Calif.-based grower of tree fruit and grapes, want a U.S. District Court to assign a special master to take possession of their uncounted decertification ballots in their battle to split from the United Farm Workers Union.
The uncounted ballots have been in the possession of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), which was accused by farmworkers and Fresno Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Y. Hamilton of being “in cahoots” with the United Farm Workers (UFW) union to suppress the farmworkers’ votes.
“We don’t trust the ALRB,” said Gerawan farmworker Silvia Lopez, who filed the motion on Aug. 19 in federal court. “They have been working against us from day one and we don’t believe they are fair or have our best interests in mind. We don’t believe that the ballots are safe with them.”
Lopez also requested that if the court appoints a special master, the neutral third party should count the ballots.
“There are strong judicial economy reasons to count the ballots, as well as elementary notions of fairness and justice that would support this decision,” said Paul Bauer, attorney for Lopez.
Bauer is a Fresno-based attorney with Walter and Wilhelm Law Group.
The issue goes all the way back to 1992 when, according to statements made in a separate legal filing, the UFW was certified as the bargaining representative for certain Gerawan Farms employees after an earlier vote by workers to unionize.
In 2013 Gerawan Farms sued the United Farm Workers Union in Fresno Superior Court, alleging defamation after a UFW employee was quoted in a newspaper story that chronicled the 20-year issue between Gerawan and the UFW. That suit was later dismissed at Gerawan’s request, according to Gerawan attorney David Schwarz of Irell and Manella in Los Angeles, Calif.
20 years of silence
Schwarz said the UFW has never had a contract with Gerawan to represent certain workers at the farming operation in spite of a November, 2013 ALRB order to impose a contract.
According to the defamation suit, the UFW failed to contact Gerawan Farms until late in 2012, 20 years after the ALRB certified UFW representation of about 5,000 Gerawan employees.
Since then workers at Gerawan have attempted on at least two occasions to decertify the union, according to Schwarz. The first petition was dismissed by the ALRB; a second petition filed by Gerawan employees seeking the decertification vote was eventually granted by the ALRB in Nov, 2013 and a decertification election was ordered.
Ballots from that election are currently impounded and have not been properly counted, according to Bauer.
Bauer alleges the ALRB has engaged in a number of activities that proves it is neither impartial nor protecting the rights of the farmworkers, including:
- ALRB mediators refused to allow farmworkers to attend public Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation (MMC) hearings and contract negotiations;
- Of the nearly 2,500 signatures originally submitted for the decertification petition, the regional director claimed only 100 were invalid, meaning there were still enough valid signatures to require an election;
- Despite having 2,500 signatures – enough to trigger the decertification election – the regional director claimed there was not a sufficient showing of interest;
- Farmworkers then submitted 3,000 signatures in a fraction of the time taken to collect the first set. Three days later, the regional director used another excuse to deny the farmworkers’ vote. This time he incorrectly stated that the union contract had been approved and the farmworkers were prohibited from holding a decertification election. The ALRB members in Sacramento overturned this action;
- For a third time, the regional director tried to stop the vote by engaging in a sham investigation. The ALRB office in Sacramento again overturned his ruling and instructed him that no other blocks to the decertification election were permitted;
- A legal decertification election was held on November 5, 2013, but the governor’s ALRB has refused to count the ballots. The ballots are currently in possession of the same regional director who attempted to stop the election from happening three times; and,
- Despite a legal challenge to the MMC proceedings and the uncounted decertification ballots, the ALRB General Counsel attempted to impose the new UFW contract on the farmworkers by filing a Temporary Restraining Order (TRO) in state court. The judge refused to grant the TRO.
Even Superior Court Judge Jeffrey Y. Hamilton, who presided over the TRO hearing, told the ALRB General Counsel, “In other words, it’s a little bit disingenuous to say you’re protecting these workers’ rights; yet you’re blocking their election at every turn.”
“We hope the federal courts allow a special master take possession of our ballots,” said Lopez. “It’s clear to everyone, even the court that the ALRB doesn’t work for us. Why should someone working for the people we’re trying to fire get to keep control over our ballots? It’s not fair and must be stopped.”
To learn more about the farmworkers fight, visit www.farmworkerrights.com.