Photo courtesy of United Farm Workers

Photo courtesy of United Farm Workers

The Long Road to Justice for California Farmworkers

By Cruz Reynoso and Arturo S. Rodriguez

With the recent nationwide release of the first feature film and a new full-length documentary about the life of Cesar Chavez, we are celebrating Cesar’s legacy of fighting for farmworkers’ rights and the continuing progress of the United Farm Workers of America.

As with other good laws that protect California’s agricultural workers, poor enforcement of the state’s farm labor law means that workers often must battle long and hard to win union contract protections.

However, even today, farm workers in the U.S. continue to be excluded from national labor laws that granted basic rights to industrialized workers in 1935 and 1938. California is the only state with a law—the 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act—allowing those who labor in the fields to organize and bargain for better pay, decent conditions and job security. California workers have those protections only because of Cesar Chavez and the workers he and his movement organized.

But, as with other good laws that protect California’s agricultural workers, poor enforcement of the state’s farm labor law means that workers often must battle long and hard to win union contract protections.

Fresno-based Gerawan Farming, one of America’s largest grape and tree fruit growers, epitomizes the agricultural industry’s ongoing, entrenched resistance to unionization. Gerawan’s grapes, peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots are sold in major grocery stores across the country under its Prima label, but the workers who grew and harvested that fruit have been denied even the most basic of labor protections.

Just last year, 23 years after voting for the UFW in a state-conducted, secret ballot election, Gerawan workers finally got what they voted for: a union contract that the state ordered the company to implement. California lets workers call in neutral state mediators to hammer out contracts when growers refuse to sign them. Under the contract terms set by the mediator—not the UFW—as of May 2014, the majority of Gerawan employees would have received approximately $1,074 each, retroactive to July 2013. This was to cover paid holidays and regular wage increases, reflecting a 54-hour workweek.

The new contract also would have handed other Gerawan workers (including irrigators, tractor drivers and pesticide sprayers) a 2.5 percent wage increase, also retroactive to July 2013, plus five percent pay hikes in 2014 and 2015.

For approximately 5,000 farmworkers, those back wages and benefits would have conservatively translated into millions of dollars, covering July 2013 to May 2014. Going forward, the contract would produce many millions of dollars more for workers over its duration.

We say Gerawan farmworkers would receive the money they are owed; Gerawan refuses to implement the contract. Instead, Gerawan has used appeals and endless legal motions to avoid paying the compensation their workers are owed. A series of complaints issued by state officials describes a long history of egregious labor law violations by Gerawan. Let’s examine some of them.

Culminating the union’s last major organizing drive under Cesar Chavez’s leadership, Gerawan workers voted in favor of the UFW in May 1990. It took more than two years after that vote for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to dismiss Gerawan’s appeals of the election results.

Meanwhile, the state of California found that Gerawan illegally fired a crew of workers for supporting the union [i] and unlawfully closed down six of its farm labor camps in retaliation for workers backing the UFW.[ii]

A 1994 UFW drive that involved thousands of Gerawan workers produced a complete bargaining proposal. But the company never submitted a counterproposal. In 2004, the UFW launched a new campaign to organize Gerawan workers and opened a union office in the Fresno County town of Reedley to aide in that effort.

The UFW sent another request for negotiations to Gerawan in October 2012. However, numerous bargaining sessions failed to produce much movement by the company or a union contract.

After workers brought in a state mediator, the ALRB general counsel filed three complaints against Gerawan from May to October 2013. The state of California accused Gerawan of:

  • “Ilegally excluding some of its farmworkers from the benefits of a [union contract].”[iii]
  • Having company supervisors illegally “instigat[e]and encourag[e] the gathering of signatures” on petitions to decertify (or get rid of) the UFW. California and national labor laws make it patently illegal for employers to get involved in campaigns to decertify unions.[iv]
  • “Unlawfully interrogating workers about their union activities” and “surveiling” workers.[v]
  • “Failing to bargain in good faith with its employees’ union” and “impeding its employees’ ability to communicate with their union.” Gerawan has “intimidat[ed] [its employees] in the exercise of their right to participate in negotiations.”

The ALRB in 2014 issued a fourth complaint against Gerawan over its failure to implement the contract.[vi] The state agency also is investigating charges that Gerawan failed to recall workers in retaliation for their union activities.

In September 2013, the ALRB regional director dismissed the first Gerawan petition to decertify the UFW after a thorough investigation exposed “a large number of forged signatures” and “significant unlawful assistance by the employer in the circulation of the petition,” according to the regional director. He dismissed the second petition in October 2013, citing the outstanding three recent complaints against the company for repeated multiple violations of the law. The regional director concluded that it is “impossible to conduct an election in an atmosphere where employees can exercise their choice in a free and uncoerced manner.”

Nevertheless, Governor Brown’s three appointees on the ALRB vacated the regional director’s dismissal of the second decertification election and ordered that the balloting be held anyway. The ballots were impounded and not counted.  Governor Jerry Brown recently appointed a new ALRB chairman, and the Legislature has approved SB 25, a UFW-sponsored bill extending the binding mediation process.

In February 2014, Gerawan workers filed a federal class-action lawsuit accusing the company of not paying workers the minimum wage, overtime and paid rest breaks guaranteed under state law. And, workers are asking the public and major retailers to encourage Gerawan to obey the law and implement the contract.

Too often what is lost amidst these legal battles are the human consequences. Farmworkers are among the poorest workers in the country and the state, often live in grossly substandard housing and rarely get health and workers’ compensation insurance, despite laboring in unsafe conditions.

Cesar Chavez showed that farmworkers could bring about transformational change in their lives and the lives of their families. The greatest legacy he left behind is seen in the continuing work of his movement through the United Farm Workers of America and the thousands who are aggressively organizing, negotiating union contracts and advocating for new legal protections.

As new generations learn about what Cesar achieved, we must continue the movement he led and rally strong public and consumer support for the farmworkers to whom he dedicated his life.  California’s farmworkers are not giving up the fight for fairness and justice.

To learn more about Cesar Chavez and his union, watch the major motion picture Cesar Chavez by director Diego Luna as well as the documentary Cesar’s Last Fast by director Richard Ray Perez. To participate and keep up with  farmworker campaigns, sign up for the UFW’s free list serve at www.ufw.org

[i] Case 18 ALRB No. 5.
[ii] Case 18 ALRB No. 16.
[iii] Case 2013-CE-10.
[iv]4 Cases 2013-CE-27 and 2013-CE-27.
[v] Case 2013-CE-27.
[vi] Case 2014-CE-003-VIS.