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Caught Off Balance

November 10, 1985

Gov. George Deukmejian appointed former state Assemblyman David Stirling as general counsel of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board with instructions to create balance in the agency's operations. It seemed to work for a while, but lately Stirling has so clearly chosen one side over another in his job that the governor must let him go.

Like many of California's farmers who support him politically, Deukmejian believed when he took office that the board showed bias in favor of Cesar Chavez and his United Farm Workers union from the day the board was created in 1975, while Edmund G. Brown Jr. was governor. Appointing Stirling was Deukmejian's way of trying to move things back to the center.

Obviously sympathies play a part in the board's actions, but charges of bias for workers in one case or for growers in the other are as hard to prove as they are to shake. For example, judges appointed by Republicans as well as Democrats have ruled against growers in nearly all of the appeals by growers of what they considered pro-union decisions by the board. On the other side of the coin, Chavez' earlier charges that Stirling was turning the ALRB against farm workers were clearly excessive. To outsiders, at least, Stirling seemed to be making a serious and successful effort to be even-handed.

For whatever reason, that has changed. Stirling is clearly on the attack, no longer simply responding to specific Chavez criticisms of the agency but lashing out broadside against the union. He makes frequent speeches denouncing a new boycott of California table grapes by Chavez and the UFW, even traveling out of state at taxpayers' expense to campaign against the boycott.

Stirling contends that this anti-Chavez campaign is needed because the UFW leader launched the boycott solely out of frustration with the board, not for cause. Stirling argues that the boycott, based on Chavez' allegations about possible pesticide contamination of crops, could be harmful to a key state industry.

Quite apart from the fact that California agribusiness has ample resources with which to defend itself, Stirling's rationale ignores his responsibility as the head of a public agency to handle sensitive and complicated legal disputes between labor and management with balance and at least a semblance of neutrality. By taking management's side and attacking a union that is bound to come before his agency seeking unbiased judgment, Stirling has badly undermined his ability to appear impartial, and therefore his ability to be effective.

No law as relatively new as the Agricultural Labor Act and as crucial to California agribusiness could be administered without controversy. But it should at least be administered with dignity. At the beginning, Stirling seemed to make an effort to do that. But his recent actions make it all but impossible for him to function as general counsel for the farm labor board in the way the law requires. The governor should thank him for making the effort and start looking for a replacement who will be fair and neutral in fact as well as in appearance.

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