California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board on Thursday certified a November 2013 vote by employees of Fresno-based Gerawan Farming Inc. that overwhelmingly rejected a push by the United Farm Workers to represent laborers at the farm.
While the board still maintains that Gerawan officials illegally helped proponents circulate petitions seeking the union's decertification, the effort "did not interfere with the employees’ free choice to such an extent that it affected the outcome of the election," the board stated in a notice on its website.
"Therefore, the Board certified that a majority of the valid ballots were cast for 'No Union' in the representation election, and that the UFW lost its prior status as the exclusive representative of the employees for the purpose of collective bargaining," the board's statement read.
The decision seemingly all but ends years of protests and lawsuits over a unionization effort at Gerawan by the UFW that began in 1990, when the union first won representation at the fruit-growing operation. Petitioner Silvia Lopez and other farmworkers and Gerawan officials contended the UFW abandoned the farm and then reappeared in 2012 to seek an agreement with the company. Lopez filed state and federal lawsuits claiming that farmworkers' civil rights were violated when the state refused to count their votes
Ballots sealed for five years were finally opened and counted in front of many witnesses Sept. 18 in compliance with a California Supreme Court order. The vote tally revealed that nearly 1,100 Gerawan employees did not want union representation, while 197 votes were cast in favor of the UFW.
Lopez and others expressed surprise Thursday that the ALRB accepted the validity of their votes.
"I cannot believe what happened today," Lopez said in a statement. "The ALRB certified our votes and results. I am speechless and beyond excited and happy because justice was finally done."
"We are thankful that the ALRB finally did the right thing after 5 years of suppressing workers' rights," added Jesse Rojas of Pick Justice, a farmworkers' advocacy group. "Today is a historic and huge victory for the Gerawan farmworkers. Pick Justice is just getting started and will continue to advocate for what is right."
ALRB members assert the appellate court's findings confirmed that Gerawan violated the law by unilaterally implementing two wage increases in March 2013 without negotiating with the union and distributing flyers to its employees announcing the raises. Further, the ALRB claims Gerawan unlawfully assisted the anti-union effort by enabling a petition drive during work time and allowing Lopez and her daughter special time off to gather signatures. However, the board reasoned the efforts weren't enough to sway the vote.
Two sides disagree
Armando Elenes, the UFW's Delano-based national vice president, told Western Farm Press the ALRB failed to protect farmworkers' most basic right -- to vote in a fair election without being coerced or manipulated by their employer.
"The ALRB is still obligated by law to consider Gerawan’s numerous blatant violations of the law in determining whether the election was valid," Elenes said in an email. "This decision abandoned the ALRB’s own findings in its 82-page decision in 2016, the earlier 192-page ruling by the state administrative judge after sworn testimony from 130 witnesses during six months of hearings and additional ALRB rulings finding Gerawan guilty of other, separate violations.
"This ALRB decision tells employers they can get away with repeated and serious lawbreaking," he added. "Gerawan workers will be disappointed that they will not be paid the more than $10 million in back pay and benefits the company already owes them under the union contract the ALRB ordered Gerawan to implement."
But Anthony Raimondo, an attorney representing Lopez and other workers, said the order vindicates' workers right to organize themselves and be captains of their own economic destiny.
"The desire of the workers to be free from forced union representation as expressed in their votes at the ballot box is the purest expression of the guarantee of farmworker civil rights as expressed in the Agricultural Labor Relations Act," Raimondo said. "This is a great day for farm workers all across the state of California, who can finally celebrate the fact that they will be the ones who decide their future, not a government agency or a politically connected union.
"The workers will rest easy tonight knowing that their wages belong to them, and will not be taken from them by the United Farm Workers union," he said.