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July 2017, Volume 23, Number 3

UFW, ALRB, Chavez

The UFW won the right to bargain for employees of Foster Farms in Livingston, California when it ousted the International Association of Machinists and Aerospace Workers.

The current IAM contract expires in October 2017, and the UFW encouraged Foster's 2,400 employees to protest in April 2017 for higher wages and better benefits. The UFW wants all of Foster's Livingston workers to be required to join the UFW and remain UFW members in good standing to keep their jobs; Foster Farms became an open-shop plant about 2007.

ALRB. Administrative law judge William Schmidt in April 2017 found that Gerawan Farming violated the ALRA by refusing to bargain in good faith and trying to exclude FLC workers during negotiations for a collective bargaining agreement with the United Farm Workers union in 2013. Gerawan bargained with the UFW, but not, Schmidt found, with the intent to reach agreement, so Schmidt ordered make-whole wages and benefits for Gerawan workers employed between January and July 2013.

The UFW insists that all contracts include a clause requiring all workers to become and remain union members in good standing to work on the farm covered by its contracts, with the UFW the sole judge of the good standing of its members. Gerawan countered that workers must have the option of not joining the UFW, which Schmidt found to be predictably unacceptable to the UFW. Schmidt also concluded that Gerawan could not keep the 1,500 workers brought to the farm by FLCs outside of the contract.

Isadore Hall, confirmed to the ALRB in April 2017, continues to generate controversy. Hall was a Democratic state senator from Compton who lost a bid for a House seat, and reportedly told farmers in a Sacramento bar in 2017 that he would "get them" once he was a member of the ALRB.

NLRB. The NLRB in 2015 adopted rules to hold elections sooner after receiving petitions, reducing the average time between petition and election to 24 days in 2016 from 39 days in 2014. Unions won 67 percent of 2016 elections, about the same share as in previous years. In many cases, employers and unions stipulate or agree on a timeline for the election.

The NLRA covers most private-sector workers. Public-sector employees are covered by separate federal or state legislation. One of the most contentious issues is whether state and local governments can sign agreements requiring all workers covered by a collective bargaining agreement to pay dues to the union representing them to cover bargaining costs, but not union costs for political activities.

The US Supreme Court drew the distinction between bargaining and political costs in its 1977 Abood v. Detroit Board of Education decision, allowing states to require workers represented by unions to pay fair-share fees for bargaining costs (28 states are right to work and ban required fair-share fees). However, some workers say that public-sector unions engage in political activities when they bargain, so that there is no meaningful distinction between bargaining and political activities.

In a 2016 case involving California teachers who made this argument, the US Supreme Court voted 4-4 to allow a lower court decision upholding Abood stand. In 2017-18, the Court is expected to decide the issue in Janus versus AFSCME. In anticipation of a US Supreme Court reversing Abood, California in June 2017 enacted legislation that allows union representatives to meet new hires at employee orientation and prohibits state agencies from releasing personal employee contact information to outsiders.

Worker centers and other alternatives to unions continue to proliferate. Saru Jayaraman founded the Restaurant Opportunities Center to persuade the new Windows of the World restaurant destroyed in the World Trade Center bombing to rehire ex-staff, and ROC in 2017 had 25,000 members around the US. ROC advocates on behalf of restaurant workers, but does not negotiate collective bargaining agreements. ROC wants to eliminate tips to reduce what it calls excessive sexual harassment.

Chavez. Cesar Chavez is the most celebrated Hispanic in the US, with more streets, schools and libraries named after him than any other Mexican-American. Chavez is best known as the founder of the United Farm Workers union who used nonviolence to enlist the support of religious leaders to boycott grapes, Gallo wine and lettuce in the 1960s and 1970s and pressure growers to recognize the UFW as the bargaining representative of their workers.

Journalist Miriam Pawel wrote two books on Chavez and the UFW. The first, "A Union of their Dreams," focused on eight key players who helped Cesar Chavez to build the UFW but were later dismissed or driven out of the UFW by Chavez. Jerry Cohen directed the UFW's legal department, and was driven out by Chavez because he wanted to stay in Salinas and pay salaries to UFW lawyers rather than move to La Paz in Kern county and rely on volunteer lawyers.

Eliseo Medina became a UFW leader during the table grape boycotts of the 1960s, and resigned in 1978 when Chavez turned to Charles Dederich's for-profit Synanon to try to root out enemies within rather than organize farm workers. Medina is now secretary-treasurer of the Service Employees International Union.

Pawel's second book is a five-part, 40-chapter examination of Chavez that emphasizes his austerity and authoritarianism. Chavez escaped from low-wage work by becoming an organizer for the CSO, and quit the CSO when he realized that most poor people wanted to become middle class rather than continue to struggle for broader social change. Chavez brooked no dissent within the UFW, driving out volunteers who questioned him and not creating local unions to avoid leaders elected by their fellow workers who might challenge him.

Heroes often make enormous personal sacrifices to succeed, and Chavez worked tirelessly to win support for the UFW. As the UFW gained supporters and eventually the most pro-worker and pro-union labor law in the US, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act in 1975, Chavez distanced himself from the fields, dividing his time between a retreat in remote La Paz that was purchased for the UFW by a wealthy supporter and the cities whose supporters provided much of the UFW's revenues.

Chavez wanted to lead a poor people's movement rather than a union. Publicly, Chavez wanted the state to enact the ALRA, but privately he worried that resolving labor disputes through legal procedures would diminish the participation of people in the movement. Chavez preferred demonstrations, fasts and boycotts to bargaining and legal procedures.

Pawel explains the problems Chavez had with Salinas lettuce workers, the elite of the farm work force. Mostly legal immigrants from Mexico, lettuce workers had higher than average earnings because the large firms for which they worked were generally more profitable than the smaller fruit farms around Delano where the UFW got its start.

As the first vegetable contracts signed under the 1975 ALRA began expiring early in 1979, Chavez called a strike in support of a demand for a 40 percent wage increase, from at least $3.75 to $5.25 an hour at a time when the California minimum wage was $2.90. Growers countered with the seven percent offer that President Carter recommended as the maximum wage increase in union contracts. The UFW strike turned out to be a Pyrrhic victory, as the UFW won contracts with $5.25 an hour minimum wages, but often with firms that went out of business.

Pawel suggests that Chavez called the strike because of the UFW's inept handling of its RFK health insurance plan, which made lettuce workers angry with the UFW. Chavez hoped that a large wage increase would stifle worker anger. The strike began in the Imperial Valley on the Mexican border, and did not go well. With less lettuce sent to market, the price tripled, and the winter lettuce crop was worth twice as much in 1979 than in normal years; the extra profits accrued to growers with Teamster or no contracts.

Previous strikes had been broken by unauthorized Mexicans. Chavez was determined that this would not happen in 1979, and put his cousin Manuel in charge of "wet patrols" to prevent the entry of unauthorized Mexicans seeking jobs. Chavez sharply disagreed with those who argued that Manuel turned out to be a serial casher of bad checks who once tried to become a melon grower in northern Mexico.

As the lettuce strike continued, Chavez wanted to boycott lettuce and turn the labor dispute into a potential platform for candidates seeking the 1980 Democratic presidential nomination, while lettuce workers simply wanted higher wages. Chavez insisted on switching from a strike to a boycott at a time when many workers wanted to go back to work, prompting rare open dissent that led to changes in UFW meetings so that Chavez got his way. A Teamster contract with a $5 minimum wage paved the way for the UFW's $5.25.

The vegetable contracts signed in 1979-80 included the first paid union representatives, meaning workers were paid by employers to conduct union business and resolve grievances rather than cut lettuce. These representatives, who were elected by their fellow workers, soon clashed with Chavez, who expected union staff and workers to take orders from him. Chavez fired the elected representatives, arguing in court that only he could appoint union staff. Chavez won, and the UFW remains one of the few US unions without locals to train future leaders.

Pawel emphasizes Chavez's disdain for workers who simply want to move into the middle class, his authoritarianism that kept him in total control of the UFW, and a tendency to lie when it suited his purposes. Chavez was testifying in a court case brought by lettuce grower Bruce Church in Arizona when he died.

A jury awarded Bruce Church over $5 million because the UFW persuaded Lucky supermarkets not to carry Bruce Church lettuce by asserting that Bruce Church hired child workers and permitted sexual harassment. Chavez claimed credit when Lucky stopped selling Bruce Church lettuce, but on the stand in Arizona, he said he did not know why Lucky stopped selling Bruce Church lettuce.

Pawel, Miriam. 2014. The Crusades of Cesar Chavez. Bloomsbury. Pawel, Miriam. 2009. The Union of Their Dreams: Power, Hope, and Struggle in Cesar Chavez's Farm Worker Movement. Bloomsbury. http://miriampawel.com/