Los Angeles farm workers in epic pay battle

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HUNDREDS of labour activists, farmworkers and their allies marched on Los Angeles City Hall on Wednesday demanding that a Fresno fruit grower recognise a union contract.

This was the latest turn in a long-standing dispute over whether the United Farm Workers should represent the company’s employees.

Calling for a big turnout on Wednesday, the UFW said on Tuesday: ‘9 am march, 10 am council meeting. ‘Epic battle with huge Central Valley grower plays out before L.A. City Council Wednesday.

‘An epic battle by farm workers to implement their union contract with a giant Central Valley grower – reminiscent of 1960s farm labour struggles – plays out before the Los Angeles City Council Wednesday morning.

‘Even as state prosecutors press their case before a judge at a Fresno hearing over alleged flagrant labour law violations by Gerawan Farming Inc., hundreds of Gerawan workers from Fresno County and L.A. supporters will press at City Hall for a resolution calling on one of the nation’s largest tree fruit producers to honour a contract issued last year by a neutral mediator and approved by the state.

‘Gerawan, which sells its Prima-label fresh produce in L.A., is avoiding millions of dollars in pay increases and other benefits by refusing to honour the contract.

‘L.A. City Council President Herb Wesson, L.A. Labour head Maria Elena Durazo, United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez and 100 Gerawan farm workers travelling early that morning from Fresno County will lead other council members and elected officials plus labour, clergy and community activists in a 9am four-block march to City Hall from Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral.

‘They will pack the council chambers for the 10am hearing taking up the resolution by Council member Paul Koretz.

‘An administrative judge with the state Agricultural Labour Relations Board is presiding over the fourth week of hearings in Fresno that will include months of sworn testimony on sweeping complaints or indictments from state prosecutors charging Gerawan with multiple, serious and repeated violations of the law aimed to “prevent the UFW from ever representing its employees under a (union contract)” and at decertifying, or getting rid, of the UFW, according to the ALRB general counsel, which issued the allegations.

‘The latest indicting complaint says, “Gerawan and its supervisors” unlawfully supported workers who “stopped work and engaged in anti-UFW and anti-ALRB protests (to promote) decertification (and that) Gerawan . . . coerced workers into participating in protests.”

‘Gerawan closed its fields, directing workers to pro-company demonstrations. Gerawan also engaged in threats, interrogation and surveillance of workers, state prosecutors allege.

‘Meanwhile, Gerawan reacts to the indicting complaints by claiming, without evidence, that state investigators and prosecutors are biased.

‘A slick PR campaign by radical right-wing groups affiliated with Grover Norquist, who is backed by the Koch brothers, is being orchestrated for Gerawan.’

The UFW called on members and supporters to: ‘March from the Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral to a hearing before the L.A. City Council on a resolution urging Gerawan to implement a state-issued union contract under which it owes workers millions of dollars.’

On Wednesday, the marchers crowded into a City Council meeting, where lawmakers unanimously approved a resolution that calls on Gerawan Farming to immediately put a union contract in place.

The resolution, presented by Councilman Paul Koretz, said that for most workers the contract would have provided roughly $1,480 in added pay over the course of the previous year.

Koretz said: ‘These matters affect all of us as Angelenos. These workers may not work within our city limits, but the fruit they pick you buy and eat . . . . The men and women here with us today have been mistreated.’

Wednesday’s L.A. City Council vote has no binding effect on the Fresno grower. But UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said winning support from Los Angeles officials was important and took ‘a page out of (former UFW leader) Cesar Chavez’s playbook.’

Grossman said: ‘In the 1960s, when the growers dominated rural California, the way that the farm workers remedied that was taking their case to the city’ through the grape boycott and other actions focused on urban consumers.

In addition, he said, L.A. is a major market for Gerawan produce, sold under the Prima label.

Maria Elena Durazo, who heads the county labour federation, hinted that a boycott could be next.

She told a cheering crowd of marchers in front of the Cathedral of Our Lady of the Angels: ‘You will not be welcome in the stores of Los Angeles if that’s the next thing these workers ask us to do.’

After the vote, Gerawan co-owner Dan Gerawan said the L.A. council had been ‘used . . . for a PR stunt by UFW.’

He contended their workers were the highest paid in the industry and were being forced into a labour contract that stripped them of rights against their will.

Though Gerawan workers voted to be represented by the UFW decades ago, the union and the company never agreed to a contract.

The UFW says worker efforts were repeatedly thwarted by the company, while union opponents say the UFW abandoned the Gerawan workers.

When the two sides failed to reach agreement, a state-appointed mediator set forth terms of a union contract – a process approved by state lawmakers more than a decade ago when City Council President Herb Wesson was in the Assembly. Wesson helped design that process, which was seen as a milestone victory for agricultural unions.

Earlier this year, the state Agricultural Labour Relations Board issued a complaint alleging that Gerawan violated state labour law by failing to implement the contract set forward by the mediator.

‘All we’re asking is to follow the process that was set in place,’ Wesson said.

At Wednesday’s meeting, several farm workers told city lawmakers that they needed the contract and described poor conditions in the fields.

Some asserted that Gerawan would withhold their pay if a single rotten grape was found in their daily pickings.

The Agricultural Labour Relations Board contends that Gerawan and its representatives illegally meddled in the campaign to reject the union by telling workers that their jobs would be at risk and allowing UFW opponents to pressure other employees to sign the petition.

• In Ohio, Bay Shipbuilding workers in Boilermakers 449 union held an informational picket on Thursday in Sturgeon Bay.

One the eve of the picket, Jon Clark, a member of the solidarity committee, said: ‘We want to make sure the company knows we stand together.’

Clark said the workers’ contract ended on September 12 and his union, which represents 300 to 400 welders, steel fitters, painters and machinists, is currently in negotiations with Bay Shipbuilding but as yet, members have not taken a vote.

He emphasised the picket would be more of a rally for support and was not a strike. Clark added: ‘We’re waiting for a decent proposal. A strike is the last thing we want to do.’

He said boilermakers would like to see a three-year contract, rather than a five-year contract the company has offered.

He also said the workers are asking for a raise of at least three per cent to keep up with cost of living expenses, rather than the 2.25 per cent offered.