As usual it’s a busy summer farming season in California, but a few farm operators are taking time to assess the prospects of unionization among farm workers. Those with good memories get some help from the historical perspective.
One reason for the emphasis is the recent rejuvenation of the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board. It was brought back to life after a three or four month hiatus resulting from the resignation of long-time board member Genevieve Shiroma. Her exit left the board with only two members, but its charter says it must have at least three to conduct business.
Governor Newsom’s appointment in early June of labor attorney Barry Broad to the board brought it to life once again. Broad has been identified as one who has represented the Teamsters union and perhaps its members. Still, the three-person board is a skeleton of itself, specified in its enabling legislation of 1976 to be a five-person unit. It was decreased to three members several years ago because union activity and requests for elections by farm workers asking for union representation had declined to a standstill.
What the board deals with day-to-day are unresolved issues from past elections and petitions for elections and the alleged behavior of both union and management personnel and their representatives as those events unfolded. It is tedious work, and dollar signs can usually be attached to the outcomes. Some of the cases occurred a decade or more ago.
Changing conditions complicate the review process and the atmosphere in which farm workers and managers alike operate. For example, two strong organizations have emerged with the welfare and good health of farm workers as their paramount concerns. Both are responsive and well informed, with strong foundations and commitments to the well-being of farm workers. Both receive significant support and encouragement from farmers and their organizations.
Examples of farm management’s direct concern for its employees are noteworthy in the Salinas area, where two major employers have constructed large, ultra-modern housing units to accommodate employees.
A significant issue in farm worker attitudes has been the program of the United Farmworkers of America(UFW). Union membership has always lagged behind expectations, and its recent activities have appeared to be spotty. Of the potential membership among the 500,000 farm workers in California the union claims only between 5,000 and 10,000.
The vote by workers at Gerawan Farming in Reedley to reject the UFW and its offer to represent them in wage and other negotiations with management was a serious setback for the union. After substantial delays the ballot count less than a year ago for the election held in 2013 was not only a disappointment for the union, but cause for upheaval at the ALRB. It brought forth evidence of collusion by the state agency with the union, intended to bring the UFW victory in the election instead of the rejection that occurred.
A few who are still around can recall a much earlier phase of serious disappointment for the UFW as the election law was first unfolded. Some of the earliest elections were held among workers in the table grape industry in the Delano area, home of the union’s founder and president.
The Teamsters union was an active competitor for the table grape workers’ votes. About three dozen elections were held in the first few months of the ALRB’s oversight. Workers chose the Teamsters to represent them in 30 elections, the UFW in six. For whatever inter-union diplomacy it amounted to, the Teamsters mysteriously withdrew from organizing agricultural workers a short time later, and have not openly opposed the UFW since.
Perhaps the mystery thickens as one who might be a Teamster loyalist steps forward as a member of the embattled ALRB.