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Farm Labor Board Is Losing Its Constituency

January 12, 1986|Harry Bernstein | Harry Bernstein is The Times' labor columnist.

California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board, formed 10 years ago under a law promising to "guarantee justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations," is becoming almost useless as an instrument for achieving the Legislature's stated goal.

ALRB members, who earn $72,456 a year, are running out of cases because the board's primary source of worker complaints, Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers of America, is bringing fewer and fewer grievances.

The union says the agency, now dominated by appointees of Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, has become an ally of growers in their determined fight to keep unions out of agriculture. In the era of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., the board was perceived to be pro-farm worker, although statistics offer a different story.

Chavez's union has filed almost all the petitions asking the agency to conduct union representation elections--and almost all charges from workers claiming that employers have abused them in violation of the law.

FOR THE RECORD - Clarification
Los Angeles Times Monday February 10, 1986 Home Edition Metro Part 2 Page 4 Column 5 Letters Desk 7 inches; 220 words Type of Material: Letter to the Editor; Correction
I cannot express in words my disappointment and irritation at the total misuse of a quote from me in the article by Harry Bernstein (Opinion, Jan. 11), "Farm Labor Board Is Losing Its Constituency." In the article, Cesar Chavez, president of the United Farm Workers of America, is quoted as saying the Agricultural Labor Relations Board "is now irrelevant because it is no longer a place farm workers can go to redress their grievances against employers."
That statement from Chavez is directly followed by a quote from me saying that perhaps "pretty soon we (in the ALRB) will have nothing at all to do."
The implication of the quote from me is that I agree with Chavez. The quote from me is totally out of context. I completely disagree with Chavez's contention that the agency is no longer the place farm workers can go to seek redress of their grievances.
My statement was made in response to a question: What would happen to the agency if Chavez carried out his threat to stop using the services of the board?
I replied that if he did make true his threat, and other unions or individuals did not make use of the agency, then presumably we would have nothing to do.
As you are well aware, the ALRB has suffered from severe credibility problems since its inception. It is my belief that the media have been a significant contributing factor to the ALRB's lack of credibility. The misuse of my quote is a clear example of the unwarranted negative impact the media can have.
James-Massengale is chairperson of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

But since 1983, when Deukmejian appointed David Stirling as general counsel of the board, the number of charges brought by the union has been cut almost in half and is continuing to drop. The union insists that Stirling, who decides which cases have enough validity to go before the full board, is so pro-grower that workers cannot get fair treatment.

Stirling, an attorney and former state legislator who makes no secret of his dislike of Chavez and the UFW, insists that while he doesn't trust the union or its leaders, he does treat all charges brought before him by workers fairly.

From the union's perspective, the situation deteriorated further last week when Deukmejian appointed Gregory L. Gonot, 38, to the board. Gonot, a Republican, has been senior staff counsel to board member John P. McCarthy, the one conservative appointed by Brown and reappointed by Deukmejian. The Gonot appointment gives conservatives a 3-2 majority.

"The agency is now irrelevant because it is no longer a place farm workers can go to redress their grievances against employers," Chavez said recently.

Jyrl James-Massengale, an attorney representing growers before being named named ALRB chairperson, admitted that perhaps "pretty soon we will have nothing at all to do."

The law was enacted with the support of the union and most growers. It was written specifically to help farm workers, who are usually at the bottom of the economic ladder; it was also designed to end a decade of agricultural strikes, boycotts, bloodshed, arrests and property damage that resulted from the struggles of Chavez's small, militant union against grower intransigence.

To a large extent, the law did end that bitter era of labor turmoil by creating a legal system allowing farm workers to decide by secret ballot whether they wanted a union. And it provided a legal means for complaint when laborers felt that employers were violating the law.

But the law has not helped farm workers escape poverty. In California they average less than $9,000 a year, well below the federally determined poverty level. Most of their children never finish high school, and about half quit school before they get to the ninth grade.

The ALRB has been embroiled in controversy for all its 10 years. During the Brown Administration, the governor appointed members perceived to be clearly sympathetic to farm workers and to Chavez's union. One of the first appointees was LeRoy Chatfield, a longtime administrative aide to Chavez. Another was then-Msgr. Roger Mahoney, now Catholic archbishop of Los Angeles, who was regarded as an ally of farm workers.

Deukmejian and Stirling, along with the new board members, have claimed that the Brown board was biased against growers--but the agency's own statistics don't substantiate their contentions.

Before Deukmejian's tenure, nearly 60% of workers' charges were dismissed by ALRB general counsels before they could even be heard by the board. Of the charges that were brought to the board in that time, only about half were upheld.

Today Stirling, the agency's counsel, dismisses about 80% of the workers' charges. Only 24 of the worker's 674 complaints were found to have merit by Stirling in the 1984-85 fiscal year.

Farm workers have not benefited greatly from awards since 1975.

The board's procedure most disliked by growers is probably the so-called "make whole" remedy. Under that rule, a grower who refuses to bargain in good faith with the union can be ordered to pay workers the same wages that workers received from growers who did bargain in good faith. The board has used the make-whole remedy against growers in 71 cases since 1975; a number of the cases have been upheld by the U.S. Supreme Court.

The rulings have ordered growers to pay workers millions of dollars. But to date, workers have been able to collect only $290,000 from six growers. Legal action to force payments drag on; Stirling has intervened in several cases to reduce ALRB-ordered awards to workers.

Since the agency is becoming almost moribund, perhaps the state should use its $8-million-a-year funding for other purposes; the ALRB could be revived in a future administration more attuned to farm workers and labor stability.

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