An administrative law judge began hearing testimony Monday in a case that could decide whether more than 3,000 farmworkers employed by Gerawan Farming will be represented by the United Farm Workers union or not.
A decision on who will represent the workers has been in limbo after a group of Gerawan workers fought and won the right in November to hold an election to try and kick the union out. But the Agricultural Labor Relations Board has refused to count the ballots until it resolves numerous complaints of unfair labor practices against Gerawan.
The hearing that's taking place before administrative law judge Mark Soble is expected to last for weeks, if not months. Nearly a dozen attorneys are involved in the hearing that could have more than 100 witnesses. Monday's hearing was held in a meeting room in the Radisson Hotel in Fresno.
Soble will determine if the unfair labor charges -- which include worker intimidation and forging signatures -- are true and whether the petition to decertify the union will be tossed out. If not, the ballots will be counted and the election results announced.
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Monday's hearing was prompted by a nearly forgotten UFW victory at Gerawan more than 20 years ago. Although the union won the right to bargain for the workers, the contract was never negotiated and the union's status as the workers' representative was in limbo. That is until 2012, when the union again requested to bargain on behalf of its members, opening the door to opposition from anti-union supporters and the ensuing decertification attempt.
During Monday's opening arguments, Arcelia Hurtado, assistant general counsel for the ALRB, said that she wished the hearing was about giving workers a choice about who will represent them, but it is not. She said it's about an organized campaign of worker intimidation, harassment and verbal abuses.
"There is little doubt that some workers wanted to decertify the union but who wanted the freedom and who acted out of intimidation," Hurtado said.
She alleges that the Gerawan company orchestrated an anti-union campaign and coerced employees to sign a petition seeking to hold an election to decertify the union -- all violations of state labor law. The ALRB also alleges that Gerawan employees who were actively working to get rid of the union were given preferential treatment while union supporters were punished.
But attorney Anthony Raimondo, who represents Gerawan employee Sylvia Lopez, an anti-union leader, said this hearing is about giving workers freedom of choice. He said the union has failed to advocate for the workers after it won the right to bargain for them nearly 20 years ago.
Raimondo also denies that Gerawan workers or Lopez were involved in forging signatures on the decertificatin petition. He also suggested that maybe the UFW supporters deliberately forged the signatures to sabotage the petition process.
"To this day, no one knows how it happened," Raimondo said.
The hearing that starts at 9 a.m. continues today through Wednesday at the Radisson. On Thursday, the hearing begins at 8 a.m. and will be held at the Hugh Burns State Building, 2550 Mariposa Mall, Fresno.