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Veronica Cervantes, a field examiner for the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, holds up a ballot filled out in a November 2013 election by employees of Gerawan Farms to decide if they would remain affiliated with the United Farm Workers Union. The Califronia Supreme Court ordered last week that the votes be counted.

published on September 18, 2018 - 6:01 PM
Written by David Castellon

It took nearly five years to happen, but Tuesday the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board finally counted votes cast by nearly 2,000 Gerawan Farming employees.

And the results essentially were as many here expected, with the Reedley-based company’s workers voting overwhelmingly to break ties with the United Farm Workers union.

Specifically, the vote came out to 1,098 voting to decertify the union and 197 voting to stay with the union, an outcome that drew applause from some Gerawan workers and others who supported the no union vote gathered at the Hugh Burns State Building Auditorium in downtown Fresno for the nearly four-hour vote count.

Before the counting happened, 635 ballots that had been challenged when the union election occurred in November 2013 were removed from the rest of the ballots, with Veronica Cervantes, a field examiner for the ALRB, explaining they wouldn’t be counted unless the gap in votes was small enough that the votes challenged — for reasons she didn’t disclose — would make a difference in the election’s outcome.

Another 18 votes were voided during the count for not being marked clearly yes or no or, in some cases, being marked both yes and no.

The ballot count came after a lengthy legal battle in which the union claimed, among other things, that the challenge to the UFW representing about 2,600 Gerawan field and packinghouse workers in Fresno County was initiated by the company and the company worked to influence the outcome of the election.

Gerawan officials denied those claims, stressing that the workers were among the best paid agricultural workers in the Valley and didn’t want to lose 3 percent of their salaries paying dues to a union that had essentially disappeared after the workers voted to join in the 1990s and didn’t show up again in again until 2013.

California Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, who stayed for the entire vote count, said part of the problem is the the ALRB is peppered with pro-union supporters who sided with the UFW — deciding that the 2013 union vote was invalid and refusing to count the ballots — instead of looking out for the interests of the parties involved, as the Gerawan workers didn’t want to be part of it anymore.

Last week, the California Supreme Court upheld an appellate court’s ruling to compel the ALRB to finally count the ballots that had been packed in a series of sealed envelopes and held by the state agency.

Observers from both sides carefully watched the ballots counted, each held up for the audience and assigned observers to see and placed in a “union” or “no union” pile.

Among those watching was Silvia Lopez, a Gerawan field worker who filed a federal civil rights lawsuit against the ALRB that lead to the legal fight the culminated in the state Supreme Court ruling.

After the final ballot was counted and state officials were tallying the results, Lopez tearfully hugged supporters — Patterson among them — as it was clear the no union votes were the overwhelming majority.

“They were far, far away from us,” she said of the votes that favored staying in the union. “I’m so grateful for this moment, because this is the moment we all were expecting and were fighting for these past five years.

“You know what? I admire my co-workers, because they give me strength to keep up with this situation legally, and they give me support, and I feel their support. So I continue, because they say they are happy with this company where they work, and that makes me stronger and stronger.”

Though the vote outcome was as many expected, Armando Elenes, national vice president for the UFW, took issue with it ever happening.

“This not about a vote. This is a mockery of the democratic process,” he said, accusing Gerawan of repeated violations of law to obtain the worker election, which included allowing Lopez a “virtual sabbatical” to collect signatures supporting an election during work hours.

He also accused Lopez of accepting $13,000 from trade groups representing the farming industry.

When asked about Elenes’ claims, Lopez referred questions to her Fresno-based lawyer, Anthony Raimondo, who said the UFW has done all it can to discredit his client.

“Sylvia never received anything,” but rather Gerawan workers received donations that they used to pay for buses and food in order to hold a protest in Sacramento in 2013 in which they successfully “shamed” the ALRB into allowing the union election later that year, Raimondo said.

Those donations have been challenged in court, and California’s 5th District Court of Appeals in Fresno determined they were legal, added Raimondo, who accused the UFW of bringing the matter up again to district from its legal loss.

While the state Supreme Court ruled that the worker votes had to be counted, “the court also said that you have to take into consideration all the activity leading up to the election [in] whether to certify the election,” Elenes said.

That means this matter may not have ended with today’s vote count, as the ALRB still has to certify the results, according to a written statement by the UFW. Legal wrangling is also certainly to follow.

 


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