Watching a tragedy occur is a painful experience, but California agriculture has to tolerate the pain as a once respected and pertinent state agency appears to be on the brink of disintegration.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) is taking steps to destroy itself and the act that created it - the 40-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The purpose of the act and the board that oversees it is to allow the state’s 500,000 or more farm workers to hold secret ballot elections at their work sites to determine if they want to be represented by unions.
The act is historic in that no other state guarantees such a right. Action at the state level is necessary because the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA) specifically excludes agricultural workers from its provisions.
A barrel full of favorable attention for California was created when the act was signed into law by Governor Jerry Brown in his first term in 1975.
But instead of growing in grace and performing its duties impartially, the act (board) is becoming a laughing stock and a bloated bureaucracy.
For a significant portion of its life, the board has operated with only three members, although its charter specifies five. It has been hard to justify the expense of the full five members because the demand by workers for elections has been almost non-existent for a large share of the board’s lifetime.
A little more than two years ago the board took a sharp turn for the worse. It coincided with a significant increase in its budget (something all but dyed-in-the-wool unionists find hard to justify), and the subsequent hiring of a new general counsel. She expanded her staff almost entirely with known fans and devotees of the United Farmworkers Union (UFW).
A kind of belligerence emanated from that department of the agency, breaking any compatibility it had with the board itself.
The eventual outcome of the new era of the general counsel has created national negative attention, eventually leading to her dismissal. This was followed by the transfer or removal of two of her closest loyal union-supporting staff members.
Instead of the housecleaning many hoped for, especially with the appointment of a new and experienced chairman of the board, underworked staff members in the general counsel’s office began agitating for new and expanded responsibilities.
Not surprisingly, the activities they proposed for themselves and the agency centered on the education of all farm workers regarding the way the agency operates, supposedly in the farm workers’ behalf.
To many observers in the agricultural community, the great expansion of duties these agency staffers propose is more akin to brainwashing. They want to meet with workers all over the state at their work times while they are gathered on farm property.
To do so means they will need to enter the property, hold informational sessions at lunch or break times, all in the name of informing, but in reality, encouraging the farm workers to call for union elections.
Underlying the suggestion of such a mammoth educational undertaking is the crass and selfish goal of increasing the size of the agency. In the world of bureaucrats, the bigger your bureau the more stature it commands. The bigger your bureau the more important and vital you are as an individual. This is twisted, but logical to dyed-in-the-wool bureaucrats (in my opinion).
The farm and farm worker community are viewing this deterioration of the ALRB with profound sadness. The agency’s transition from election overseer to defender-protector-educator-big daddy of farm workers is a serious misstep of state government. It speaks of a brotherhood with a union dominated legislature and with unionists everywhere.
It takes the ALRB from triumph to tragedy. It won’t be and isn’t pretty.