Written by David Castellon
For years, Gerawan Farming, Inc. has butted heads with California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board over claims the company violated workers rights.
But officials with the business, one of the largest fruit growers in the world, say that in at least one of those cases the state agency may have targeted Gerawan solely to support the agenda of the United Farm Workers Union, after one of the agency’s own staff reportedly informed her superiors that an employee had lied about being mistreated.
So lawyers for Gerawan filed a memorandum in Sacramento Superior Court recently asking a judge to compel the ALRB to release records of communications between Pauline Alvarez and her superiors when she was a field examiner working for the bureau’s general counsel.
“If her allegations are true, there is a legitimate reason to be concerned,” because in at least one case the ALRB may have claimed Gerawan committed unfair labor practices when officials were told by their own staff that those claims weren’t true, said David Schwarz, an attorney for Gerawan.
And the company’s lawyers are raising wider concerns, saying the information they’re seeking could show a wider pattern of former lead prosecutor Sylvia Torres-Guillén exhibiting pro-union bias to wrongly pursue claims against Gerawan and possibly other businesses and seeking retribution on employees who weren’t onboard with her goals.
“These allegations paint a portrait of an agency hijacked by an ideological agenda set by Ms. Torres-Guillén and implemented by her hand-picked loyalists,” Gerawan’s motion states.
The suit goes on to say there no facts in evidence to prove such claims, but Schwarz said he and Gerawan officials believe the records they’re seeking could change that.
An ALRB spokesman said his office couldn’t comment on Gerawan’s claims because the bureau is involved in a lawsuit filed against it by Alvarez.
And UFW officials didn’t respond to interview requests.
Gerawan has an extensive history of disputes with the union and ALRB. They include the ALRB’s governing board voting unanimously last year to uphold an administrative law judge’s ruling to set aside a 2013 vote by Gerawan employees to break from the UFW after determining the company interfered with that election.
Schwarz estimated that the ALRB has spent about $10 million since 2013 pursuing dozens of claims of unfair labor practice claims against his client.
As for what led to these new claims by Gerawan’s lawyers, they stem from an employee being suspended from work and later being fired in 2015 who claimed he was terminated for engaging in activities protected by his union contract.
Alvarez reportedly spoke to the man twice, and told her superiors that he admitted he was engaged in disruptive activities while working in a field — whistling to signal to co-workers that it was time take breaks, even though it wasn’t — despite being warned to stop.
“She didn’t believe there was any basis to bring this case to court,” yet a case was filed against Gerawan anyway, Schwarz said.
ALRB later dropped its claims, but while the court proceedings were going on in 2015, Gerawan’s legal team sought documentation of Alvarez’ communications with her superiors but was denied them, with the state agency citing the Whistleblower Protection Act, which protects government employees who make claims of wrongdoing by agencies and prohibits disclosure of records that might reveal the woman’s identity.
But earlier this year, Gerawan’s lawyers discovered in a web search that Alvarez currently has a whistleblower retaliation case against ALRB being adjudicated in Sacramento Superior Court in which she reportedly details her claims of mistreatment for not getting onboard Torres-Guillén’s pro-union agenda, according to a Gerawan press release.
Her lawsuit also reportedly includes mention of ALRB filing a “false declaration in order to obtain a temporary restraining order against Gerawan Farming in a dispute with that grower.”
It goes on to say that Alvarez, a 30-year ALRB employee, claims that she and other field examiners were directed by Torres-Guillén “to dredge up witnesses that would assist the UFW’s position,” and that Alvarez protested settlements of cases by farm workers against the UFW when there was sufficient evidence to establish the union violated the law.
Gerawan’s memorandum claims Alvarez’ complaint specifically mentions her involvement in matters related to Gerawan, and because she filed the lawsuit, which is public record, it asks for a reversal of the previous court decision and to compel ALRB to release the requested records.
Schwarz said the discovery of Alvarez’ lawsuit raises concerns about possible fraud by ALRB, because the woman already had filed her suit by the time Gerawan first asked for these records in 2015, but the agency didn’t disclose this.
“The question now before the Superior Court is why the Board concealed Ms. Alvarez’s lawsuit and claimed that her identity was a secret long after Ms. Alvarez sued the ALRB for suppressing insider complaints alleging prosecutorial abuse by this agency,” Gerawan’s press release states.
“The concealment which tainted these proceedings was done in order to hide information from the public,” the memorandum to the court continues.
“But what is most troubling about this case in not just the fact that the ALRB withheld evidence, but its response when confronted with the facts of its concealment. The board apparently believes that is has nothing to explain, or that it has not done anything wrong, at all.”