Farmworkers versus unions, a new fight in California
"It's hard to believe Cesar Chavez, who formed the UFW (United Farmworkers Union) to speak for workers and give workers a voice, would have approved of a union actually seeking to suppress workers' voices and workers' votes."
Strong words from Matt Patterson, who heads up the Center for Worker Freedom, a special project of NGO Americans for Tax Reform.
This afternoon, the group plans to charter buses with the capacity to carry 1,000 workers from Fresno-based peach grower Gerawan Farms to the offices of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) in Visalia, calling for transparency after an election sought to decertify the farm from a UFW labor contract signed in 1990.
Patterson says the election was held in November and the votes still haven't been counted, with no clear timeline in sight.
"It's such a strange situation, and it is unusual to see workers protesting unions, but I think it's something you're seeing more of and you're going to see more of in the future," says Patterson.
"They [the workers] feel like they were well-treated, they feel like the union did nothing for them to deserve 3% of their money, so they want to boot the union out. But the ALRB is saying 'no', we’re not going to count your votes, and that's absolutely outrageous.
"Here's the thing. After the UFW won the election in 1990 they just went away and the employer never heard from the union. The union did not bargain for any wages, the union did not bargain for any working conditions, no contract was agreed to."
The campaigner, who was previously involved in a fight against the United Auto Workers Union (UAW) in Tennessee, points to the goals of a Gerawan worker who initiated the process with signatures, Silvia Lopez.
"Silvia has worked alongside her daughters and parents at the farm; multiple generations have worked here," he says.
"Obviously, it's in any employer’s interest to have a happy workforce. Obviously if you have multiple generations of people coming back to work at your farm, they feel like they're being well treated and that's to everyone’s benefit.
"By refusing to count these votes and bring finality to this matter, the State of California is essentially forcing a union on these workers who clearly don’t want it. That’s the basic constitutional issue at stake in my view."
He says the issue is one of "life or death" for the UFW, which is facing an "existential crisis" with declining membership.
"I believe they chose this fight because it’s the low-hanging fruit, and they have the ALRP in their pocket, and that's why they’re making this big play.
"It’s funny because on the left they’re very good at propaganda, and they’re very good at making their case. I've found that there was maybe an absence of people making the case against unionization in some ways.
"Obviously everyone has the right to belong to a union, but there are upsides and downsides to everything, unionization included, and there are economic costs to unionization that people sometimes aren’t always aware of."
He says the Center for Worker Freedom's motto is that every worker should have the right to decide for themselves whether or not they want to belong to a union.
"If workers want to belong to a union, that is absolutely their right under U.S. labor laws, no one has questioned that," he says.
"But the opposite is also true. People should have the right to not join a union, to not pay dues to a union if they don't want to.
"From my point of view people come from all over the world to the United States because often they want more economic opportunity, not less. They want more freedom, not less."
The UFW did not respond for comment, but earlier this month union spokesperson Marc Grossman told CNBC that attempts were made to organize Gerawan workers in 2004, and alleged the company had resisted meetings - a claim that Gerawan refuted.
On its website, the peach producer claims to have the industry's highest wage at US$11 as an hourly base rate, with the average rising to US$15.35 for employees who only pack grapes. It claims this compares to an average of US$9.05 in Fresno County.
In a press release, the UFW claims it was responsible for negotiating the pay rise to US$11 which was effective as of July 1, and said it was proposing to increase the hourly base rate to US$15 an hour plus an additional 15% for other crew and cultural workers.
"The union also asked Gerawan to agree to a 15 percent increase for all piece rates and urged the company to apply all pay hikes to the many company employees hired through farm labor contractors. Gerawan refused to apply the wage increases to farm labor contractor employees working at the company," the release said.
"The union has calculated that Gerawan owes the majority of its employees approximately $1,256 each in pay raises and benefits retroactive to July 2013 under terms of the union contract issued by the neutral state mediator and the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board," the union alleged.
In late July, the UFW alleged its member Pablo Gutierrez was fired from Gerawan for taking a photo in the field.
"A veteran union leader among the workers at Gerawan, Gutierrez was talking with members of his crew at a tree fruit orchard near Reedley about working conditions, including food safety issues such as guarding against contamination of the fruit they pick," the UFW said.
"After he took a photograph, the company suspended him. When he went to the Gerawan office, Gutierrez was terminated.
"Meanwhile, anti-union workers at Gerawan have taken numerous pictures at work and have posted them on social media. Gerawan has never disciplined them. Some of those photos taken in the fields by anti-union employees will be displayed at the 2 p.m. event."
The UFW filed formal unfair labor practice charges with the ALRB in relation to the matter alleging Gutierrez was fired because of his union activities.
"The ALRB is still investigating other charges that Gerawan refused to recall union activists. Also pending against the company are four complaints—tantamount to indictments—issued since last year against Gerawan by the ALRB general counsel alleging serious and repeated labor law violations," the union alleged.
The story of the UFW's founding was recently popularized in the movie 'Cesar Chavez', starring Michael Peña, John Malkovich, Rosario Dawson and America Ferrera.