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Farmworkers voted to de-unionize. The union says it was a sham election.

Farmworkers employed by one of the biggest fruit growers in the country have officially ousted the United Farm Workers, the union founded by Cesar Chavez. Why would so many workers vote against unionizing, especially in a place where the farmworker movement has such a strong legacy? Was the election fair?

Gerawan Farming employs almost 5,000 workers over 70 farms across the Central Valley. Many, if not most of those workers, are undocumented immigrants from Latin America, for whom unions can provide essential legal protections in often exploitative employment situations.

But, the farmworkers voted against unionizing back in 2013. That election was subsequently disputed by the UFW, which argued that it was unlawfully influenced by the employer’s fear mongering and anti-union campaign.

So after five years of dueling lawsuits, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which adjudicates farm labor disputes, has finally ruled to upholdthe results of the election.

A “grassroots” fight to oust the UFW

Fresno is the poorest major city in the state. If you’re in town during the holidays, you’ll notice people there are serious about Christmas lights. They light up their whole entire properties, fences and trees and walkways. As you get out of town and towards the fields, they come at you like little magic kingdoms illuminated in the dark expanse of farms.

In the daylight they look more like what they are: not good enough housing stock; almost 15 percent are overcrowded, roughly a third of the households are without enough food. Still, in many ways, it’s a much safer place for immigrants, in particular, to work and thrive than it once was. That’s, in large part, thanks to Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Worker movement.

But if you ask Sylvia Lopez she’ll say today’s UFW is different. Lopez doesn’t believe unions are improving the livelihoods of farmworkers in the Central Valley. She was a leader in the long, long battle to kick the UFW off Gerawan Farming — and she won.

“It was a big thing because now we know that we're not union slaves,” says Lopez. “Because I think being in a union, giving your money away, is being slaves.”

Lopez picks fruit for Gerawan Farming and she helps out at her daughter’s tortilla shop. She’s also President of a controversial advocacy group called Pick Justice, which was formed specifically to help Gerawan workers fight the UFW.

Though they say Pick Justice is a grassroots, farmworker-led group, it was founded by a young political consultant, named Jesse Rojas. Rojas says unions are like the union has done a bad job of representing workers.

“It's like a product, right? If these tortillas are not good, nobody's going to buy them. They're really good so she’s always sold out, but when something doesn't work then people don't want it.”

Rojas has always claimed that the UFW abandoned Gerawan workers. After being elected to represent the workers 25 years ago, the union never negotiated a contract and started collecting union dues.

That’s because the union and the company were embroiled in legal battles that escalated to the state supreme court. The UFW made several contract proposals that were refused.

But it is true, that from the perspective of workers, the UFW was not much of a presence for years. The way Lopez says she experienced it: they just showed up saying we’re ready to start collecting union dues.

“They were notifying us,” she says, “they didn't ask us. They tried to silence us, they tried to force us to make a contract.

So that’s when Pick Justice formed in order to fight back against the union. They started collecting signatures demanding a new election to give workers the chance to decide whether or not to stay in the union.

We’re going to hear from the other side, but I want to say two things about the larger context of this fight:

First, Rojas says he believes Latin American immigrants, especially undocumented immigrants like him, tend to be suspicious of unions.

“The very same unions and things that oppress 99 percent of my family who still lives in Colima, Mexico, the unions, the government abuse — It's the same thing that we see here in California now.”

He and Silvia Lopez say workers are not thinking of Cesar Chavez and the farmworker movement. They’re just thinking of authorities who want to squeeze them for dues or worse — jeopardize their status in this country.

Lopez claims she didn’t have to convince people, they already got it, “because they came from Mexico,” she says, “they were running from that.”

But this leads us to the other thing to know. Rojas and Lopez weren’t fighting the UFW singlehandedly. As soon as the owner of Gerawan Farming caught a whiff of the union’s return, he started waging a campaign to win workers over to his side. Among other things, he gave everyone a raise and more bathroom breaks.

Lopez claims the relationship between the company and the workers was “great.”

For example, she says, “if there's seventy people working, he will go one by one [and visit] with each worker. So I think there's a very good opportunity to talk to them if you have a problem with your work.”

But because Lopez has always allied herself with the employer’s effort to fend off the union, she was accused of being paid by him to organize, which is illegal.

“Of course they said that we got paid to protest against the union,” says Lopez “and that's not true. Nobody told us go do this and I'll pay you. I'm not part of that. I don't work like that. I don't do those things.”

A dirty campaign

Other workers have a very different story. According to some of them, the “no” vote wasn’t about distrust for the union, it was about fear of retaliation from the employer.

I met three supporters of the UFW as they got off work at a peach and nectarine orchard. The sun was going down, we stood under the trees by the side of the road, shifting our weight to stay warm. It was pruning season so these workers spend their days up on ladders with their arms over their heads.

The first they heard about the union was from the company — warning the union wanted to take 3 percent of their paycheck for dues. Aurelio Landa says he was turned off at first. But then an organizer from the UFW convinced him that the contract already negotiated by the mediators was going to get workers a better deal than they were getting.

“When I started to look at the benefits I was going to see through the union,” says Landa, referring to salary increases, seniority, and grievance process and benefits, “so, that was the idea.”

Landa and Garcia say that when they started showing support for the union, the company began targeting them. They say they were both suspended for fabricated reasons.

Garcia points to the end of the road where he says the workers held a demonstration against the UFW.

“We couldn’t work because they’d blocked the entrances,” he remembers, “and the foremen were bringing people to this meeting point so the media could see all these workers demonstrating that they don’t want Union — supposedly,”

In the Univision video the workers appear to be participating enthusiastically.

Garcia says workers know about Gerawan’s history of retaliation. It is true the company fired workers for supporting the union 25 years ago. He says they don’t want to jeopardize what is a pretty good job for the industry. But he was still motivated

He says there’s nothing he likes about his job. He doesn’t know if he’ll be able to move into a house with more than one bedroom for all three of his daughters. He doesn’t know how he’ll retire. He wants more from his employer. And the enemy of his enemy? That’s the Union, so that’s where his allegiance lies.

A landslide

Eventually, Rojas, Lopez and the Pick Justice group collected enough signatures to force a new election. That took place in 2013. But before the votes were counted, the UFW filed another suit with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board saying there was foul play in the process. So the votes were impounded and no one knew the outcome for four years until the lawsuit was settled.

Finally last November, the ALRB ruled that even though there had been unlawful activity, the results of the election would stand. Their reasoning? The vote tally: out of the almost 1300 Gerawan employees, only 197 voted to keep the UFW. So, even though there was evidence to back up the what Garcia and Landa claimed, the ALRB decided the vote was too much of a landslide for it to be explained simply by a dirty campaign.

“The ALRB was unwilling to confront the political power that this company was gonna leverage and use,” says Armando Elenes, the Secretary-Treasurer of the UFW. “It was just unprecedented in my opinion of 20 years of doing this. There were, dozens of signatures that were forgeries. But yet, the ALRB chose to ignore that.”

In its ruling, the ALRB confirmed that Sylvia Lopez used company time to campaign, which is illegal. But, no one was able to turn up evidence that Rojas’ group “Pick Justice” was funded by the employer.

“I don’t think we probably did enough in terms of figuring out where their funding was coming from,” says Elenes.

Pick Justice is not required to publicly file taxes. It is required to file what’s called a statement of information which would tell us something about cash flow. But they haven’t filed one — which is atypical — and they paid a penalty for it.

The two lawyers associated with Pick Justice, Anthony Raimondo and Richard Aaron both represent big agribusinesses in the Central Valley. Meaning Pick Justices’ lawyers typically work on behalf of employers at companies like Gerawan. But it’s hard, if not impossible, to trace Pick Justice’s money directly back to the owners of Gerawan Farming.

Both the owner of Gerawan Farming and the lawyers associated with Pick Justice refused to take my calls or respond to my emails.

Don’t bring a knife to a gun fight

Regardless of who financed what, Elenes admits the UFW was not at all prepared to take on the fight against them.

“I don't think we really had enough of an idea that how big it was going to be,” says Elenes. “It was kind of like a race against the clock and the clock ran out on us.”

It’s hard to tell what factors had the most sway over the outcome of the election: Was it Gerawan’s tactics? Jesse Rojas’ messaging? The UFW’s failure to maintain their credibility among farmworkers? Some say it’s the general climate of hostility toward undocumented immigrants. Could the UFW have overcome all of that if they’d put more resources into organizing?

“I think that there's definitely some lessons learned, says Elenes. “If we had been able to convince [the workers] that there was a possibility of changing the conditions… We just didn't have the amount of staff to be all different locations. That it makes it very difficult.”

Not investing in organizing means, that for a lot of these workers, the only information that they got came from the other side, they never even heard the union’s case. Elenes explains that the UFW has other responsibilities besides organizing — namely, drafting and lobbying for legislation.

For example, the UFW has fought to better protect in California from the dangers of working during extreme temperatures, to close loopholes at the federal level that allow employers to deny workers overtime pay in some cases, and to reform immigration policies for farmworkers.

But Elenes says in the last few years, they’ve shifted more resources over to their organizing and unionizing efforts.

“It's definitely more of a priority, he says, “we're really focused on growing the organization.”

So that the next time the UFW faces push back from an employer, it has the support to win. That takes organizing, which is expensive and labor intensive. But recently, some unions — like those representing Bay Area hospitality workers and teachers — have recommitted to that work and won. But, what happened at Gerawan should also serve as a lesson for workers and unions: don’t bring a knife to a gun fight.