A group of Fresno farm workers is accusing the state of California of forcing them into the United Farm Workers union.
Workers at Fresno-based Gerawan Farms held an election in November to determine whether or not they would remain in the UFW. However, those ballots were never counted. The Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) seized the ballots until it could investigate UFW allegations of voter impropriety.
"We direct the regional director to forward to the Board and serve on all parties to the election all challenged ballot declarations and all other evidence in his possession relevant to the eligibility of challenged voters," the board said in a Nov. 7 decision.
Workers who supported decertifying the union said that the claims are baseless. They have organized a rally against the ALRB and UFW on Tuesday afternoon.
Silvia Lopez, who has worked for Gerawan since 1998, said the workers want to have the chance to decide union membership for themselves. Gerawan workers voted in the union in 1990 and no vote has been held since that time.
"We have been forced to pay for the union based on a decision of workers 23 years ago," she said. "We work so hard for our money and we’re not planning to give it away just because the UFW wants it."
Matt Patterson, director of the Center for Worker Freedom, has been helping the workers navigate the complicated bureaucracy designed to dissuade such decertification efforts. He said that the workers are forced to pay 3 percent of their salaries to a union that they never elected to join.
"These workers feel that they have had the union imposed upon them by the state of California," he said. "Their votes are sitting in an office somewhere with no end in sight."
Gov. Jerry Brown—who was voted back into office in 2010—established the ALRB in 1975. The board was supposed to serve as an independent labor arbiter modeled after the National Labor Relations Board. The California board has morphed into a union defender, rather than disinterested arbiter, according to Patterson.
"It’s an absolute abuse of power … and a violation of what this board was intended to be," he said. "In the end they have become enforcers of unionism."
The ALRB did not respond to request for comment.
The ALRB has attempted to force the company to implement a contract with the UFW even as it sits on Gerawan's impounded ballots. Ten days after the election, the board denied a company motion to begin mediation with the union until after the votes were counted. If the company establishes a contract with the union before the ALRB completes the election investigation, the board can force Gerawan's 5,000 workers to remain in the union no matter the result of the vote.
The board set a brief timeline to complete its investigation back in November, but has blamed funding issues for delaying the investigation for the past 10 months. Patterson said that the board is stalling to give the UFW time to achieve its contract.
"If the union had won that election I think they would have counted the ballots. I don’t think the ALRB is interested in seeing the UFW decertified," he said.
The union has alleged fraud throughout the decertification process. A regional ALRB director dismissed the workers' first election petition in September, finding that some signatures could be fraudulent.
"You could write a soap opera about it," UFW vice president Armando Elenes said at a September press conference following the petition. "You have fraud, you have forgery, you have employee assistance."
The state board reversed the regional director's decision.
"Under the present circumstances, notably that the charges on which the consolidated complaint was based were up to ten months old, the issuance of a complaint so close in time to the election leaves us with serious doubts as to the propriety of using that complaint to block the election," the board’s order for the election said.
Patterson said the November fraud charges are just as baseless as those in September. He said that the workers who have been waiting 10 months for their freedom from the union will have their votes counted.
"The workers did everything they were supposed to do and we feel their voices should be heard," he said. "Everyone deserves certainty in this situation about the union’s standing among workers."
The rally is scheduled to begin in front of the ALRB’s regional headquarters at 3 p.m on Tuesday.