Commentary: Bill strips employees of workplace democracy, wages


Issue Date: July 10, 2013
By Dan Gerawan
Dan Gerawan
A bill before the state Legislature could disrupt farmworkers’ ability to vote to accept or reject a labor agreement.

Thousands of farmworkers in California need our help.

California State Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, D-Sacramento, has authored a bill that could result in an endless stream of labor "contracts"—all crafted by a state-sanctioned arbitrator—being forced on a farmer's agricultural employees. The employees would have no opportunity to vote to accept or reject those "contracts," which no doubt would include a standard provision requiring the farmer to deduct and pay 3 percent of their wages as union dues.

The bill is Senate Bill 25. It would amend the part of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act that provides for mandatory mediation—and ultimately interest arbitration—between a farmer and labor union representing the farmer's agricultural employees. The process is available when the farmer and union can't by themselves through negotiation reach agreement on setting wages, hours and other terms and conditions of employment for those employees.

Where the farmer and union do come to an agreement, it can take effect only if it is ratified by the affected employees upon their vote. But if it is not ratified, negotiations continue.

In stark contrast, the endpoint of the ALRA mandatory mediation/arbitration process is a so-called "collective bargaining agreement" containing terms of employment imposed by the mediator/arbitrator. But as one appellate court noted, "there is no agreement": It is really an order of the state that is not subject to ratification by the affected employees.

Under current law, this mediation/arbitration process cannot be used where a farmer and union certified before 2003 to represent the farmer's agricultural employees already had a contract between them. SB 25 would change that, making all future negotiations subject to the process and allowing for the imposition of one arbitrator-crafted "contract" after another, without end.

Our farm, Gerawan Farming, is a family grower of peaches and grapes in Fresno County. Our 5,000 employees are paid high wages—never less than $10 per hour—and have excellent working conditions. We offer retirement and vacation pay, and we spend more than $100,000 a year on cold sports drinks for our employees. We also pay the tuition for any employee's child to attend our local parochial school.

Here's what is happening on our farm:

The United Farm Workers union won a contested election at my family's farm 23 years ago. But after only one bargaining session, they disappeared. The UFW completely abandoned the workers.

Twenty years later, the UFW reappeared and demanded that we fire employees who won't pay them dues, despite the fact that:

  • The one and only election took place almost a quarter-century ago;
  • At least 95 percent of our current employees didn't even work for us in 1990;
  • In fact, many of our current employees weren't even born when the election happened.

Because of the 2002 legislation creating the mandatory mediation/arbitration process, the UFW has the power to ask a state-backed arbitrator to write a contract—wages and all—that will bind us and every one of our workers. We have no right to opt out. Neither do our workers. They won't be asked to ratify this contract. They won't be asked to authorize the UFW to negotiate. They are not given that choice.

So, imagine how shocked the workers will be to find out that a union that hasn't stood for election since 1990—and has done nothing to help them—has now bargained in their name and obtained an Agricultural Labor Relations Board order requiring them to pay 3 percent of their wages, or lose their jobs.

Now, Sen. Steinberg has introduced SB 25, which could make it so that all "agreements" are imposed on workers, rather than negotiated. This means that there may never be proper negotiations or the opportunity for workers to vote to accept or reject an agreement.

SB 25 isn't about helping farmworkers. It's just plain wrong. It's a mandate that will take money out of the hands of farmworkers without their choice or they could face losing their job.

For more information, visit helpfarmworkers.com.

(Dan Gerawan is president of Gerawan Farming in Fresno.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.