By Barry Bedwell
Gov. Jerry Brown is considered the father of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), as his hard work and focus resulted in the creation of the landmark law in 1975. The ALRA is widely credited with achieving its stated goal of bringing "peace to the fields" during a tumultuous period in farm labor history. The governor was then and is currently viewed as a champion of farmworker rights.
However that perception is now in jeopardy as recent actions by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) are sending the clear and unmistakable message that the law is really for the benefit of unions and for one union in particular.
The ongoing saga of Reedley-based Gerawan Farms paints a distinct portrait whereby the rights and desires of the workers have been relegated to inferior status as compared with the wishes of the union.
For the record, the United Farm Workers did win a closely held election in 1990 which gave them the right to negotiate a contract. Unfortunately, after only one meeting the UFW severed further contact with Gerawan and did not reappear until more than 20 years had passed and 95% of the workers had no previous union contact.
Since the original election. Gerawan and their employees grew and prospered. The farm pays the highest wages for its sector in agriculture. At the same time, new California laws continued to be passed for the benefit of the union, including one which would force the employer into a mandatory mediation scenario that precludes the workers from ratifying the mediator's directive.
This is the situation Gerawan's workers recently found themselves in, and they logically questioned the process whereby they were essentially being forced to join a union that the vast majority wanted no part of. The one chance they had was to gather adequate signatures to request a decertification election before the mediator's mandate was handed down.
The workers, in a grass-roots effort, did just that, but much to their dismay, the ALRB ruled that the petitions contained fraudulent signatures and an election would not go forward. Never mind the fact that reports surfaced that the fraudulent signatures were placed on the petitions by union sympathizers or that public demonstrations were held where the anti-union contingent outnumbered the pro-union group by an estimated 10 to 1.
The workers rightfully began to question just who this ALRA was meant to benefit. All they really want to do is vote and have a say in the process. Plus why would the union fear a vote if in fact they have majority support?
I have been working long enough with Sacramento legislators and regulators to realize there are many well-intended individuals who truly believe that workers, particularly farmworkers, are better off with a union whether the worker knows it or not.
This paternalistic attitude is very evident but ignores the realities that while the Legislature continues to pass laws that benefit the worker, the harder it is for the union to show value and justify taking 3% out of the workers' paychecks.
More importantly, this forced unionization is in direct contradiction to the most cherished of all freedoms, the right to make personal choices.
The ALRB is sending signals that it is moving ahead with this paternalistic attitude while the decision of the mediator may be designed to show the benefits of the union by increasing wages, which already were relatively high, to unsustainable levels that ultimately could harm both workers and employer.
In the final analysis, no one knows the intent of the ALRA better than Gov. Brown. I believe he designed the law to ensure that farmworkers could decide freely and without intimidation, by means of a secret-ballot election, whether they wished to be part of a collective bargaining process. What is happening now is clearly not that and it certainly does not feel like America.
Barry Bedwell is president of the California Grape and Tree Fruit League, a voluntary, nonprofit agricultural trade association based in Fresno.