Originally published on March 13, 2014. Original text is
Gerawan Farms and some of its employees are in the midst of a
fight with the United Farm Workers
(UFW) union, which claims to represent Gerawan’s workers,
despite not having collected dues or bargained on behalf of them
for more than two decades.
After years of failed efforts to unionize California’s migrant
farm workers, a
massive grape strike started in the small farming town of
Delano sparked a movement leading to the eventual rise of the UFW
in 1966. The face of this movement was a man named Cesar Chavez, a
man revered by labor historians as the bringer of “peace in the
fields,” who has roads, schools, and even holidays
named after him. He’s also the subject of an upcoming biopic
starring Michael Peña.
But since then, much has changed in the agriculture industry and
in labor politics. The UFW, which once boasted more than 50,000
now claims fewer than 5,000. Yet with unionization in the
industry on the decline, real wages have
steadily increased. This might explain why many workers at
Gerawan Farms have begun to protest—not against their employer, but
against the union.
Gerawan Farms employs more than 10,000 workers a year—more than
double the entire membership of UFW—and points to county employment
statistics to back up claims that
it’s an industry leader in employee compensation. UFW won an
election to represent Gerawan Farms’ workers in 1990. The company
and the union had a single bargaining session, and then UFW
disappeared from the scene, according to Dan Gerawan.
UFW refused to participate in the story and has not answered
questions about why they disappeared for more than two decades. The
truth is, they don’t have to answer such questions. Despite its
24-year absence, UFW is still the representative union of the
workers under California law. Two years ago, UFW initiated a
process called “mandatory
mediation and conciliation,” which would force Gerawan Farms to
impose a union contract and terminate any employees not willing to
divert three percent of wages towards union dues. This did not sit
well with the workers.
Silvia Lopez has worked in Gerawan Farms’ fields for 14 years
and raised her two daughters on her salary from the job. She once
worked in a union shop and didn’t enjoy the experience, saying it
was like “having two bosses.”
“I never liked a company where they have [a] union,” says Lopez.
“I don’t see that I have to pay somebody to explain me my rights. I
know my rights.”
Silvia started a petition to hold an election to officially
decertify UFW. She collected more than 2,000 employee signatures
and submitted them to California’s Agricultural Labor Relations
Board (ALRB). Silas Shawver, ALRB General Counsel, rejected the
“There were some serious problems with signatures submitted that
appeared to be fraudulent,” says Shawver.
Lopez denies that there were a significant number of fake
signatures on the petition, but she nonetheless tried again,
collecting thousands of signatures for a second time. Shawver
rejected the petition again, citing allegations made by UFW that
Gerawan management was putting pressure on the employees to oppose
the union. ALRB, which acts as investigator, prosecutor, and judge
in these cases, is pursuing unfair labor practice charges against
Gerawan Farms in court in conjunction with UFW.
The appearance of collusion between the ALRB and the UFW
disturbed Gerawan management and infuriated many of the workers,
who staged a protest in front of the ALRB offices in Visalia. In a
move reminiscent of the famous Delano grape strike, some even
travelled to Sacramento hoping to have their voices heard by
Governor Jerry Brown, the very same governor who created the ALRB
while in office 38 years ago to create “peace in the fields” and
act as a neutral arbiter between companies, workers, and
“Often what our employees tell us is, they don’t trust the
ALRB,” says Gerawan. “They’ve cited Silas Shawver himself as
someone they don’t trust.”
Following the protests, the ALRB finally granted the workers
their election, to be overseen by ALRB and administered by Shawver.
Prior to the elections, Gerawan Farms granted ALRB access to their
facilities to conduct interviews and run private sessions to inform
workers of their voting and unionization rights.
What were the election results? We don’t know. Shawver has
impounded the votes in an office safe, pending further
investigation of the unfair labor practice allegations. He failed
to provide a timeline for this investigation.
“What does that mean, to have an election and not count the
votes?” asks Lopez. “Where is the right of the farm worker? Where
Lopez and her co-workers have filed a class-action lawsuit
against the ALRB for failing to count their ballots. Gerawan Farms
is also suing, alleging that mandatory mediation is
unconstitutional. UFW continues to call for a contract to be
imposed and, alongside ALRB, alleges that Gerawan has engaged in
unfair labor practices.
“The main problem is in the ALRB office,” says Lopez. “They are
supposed to be neutral with us. But they are not. We can see that
they are favoring the UFW organization.”
Watch the above video for an inside look at this fight, and
scroll down for downloadable versions. Produced by Zach
Weissmueller. Camera by Sharif Matar and Weissmueller.
Approximately 8 minutes.
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