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HARRY BERNSTEIN / Labor

Workers Can't Expect a Fair Shake From the Farm Board

December 08, 1987|HARRY BERNSTEIN

California's farm labor law, which once offered the promise of helping California farm workers out of poverty, has been dying a slow death since Gov. George Deukmejian took office in 1983.

Latest data from the Agricultural Labor Relations Board that administers the law shows, as one board member said, "an incredible shrinkage in the amount of work we have to do." And this has happened mainly because the workers do not trust the board's pro-grower majority, appointed by Deukmejian, to treat them fairly.

The law, adopted in 1975, was designed to "guarantee justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations."

Indications that the law was becoming moribund began appearing about two years ago. Now, when it does function, the law is a handicap to workers and offers little help even to growers.

Mostly yawns appear when discussions arise about issues that once sparked mass demonstrations of both support and opposition by farm workers, ignited furious protests by growers and spurred hotly contested ballot initiatives to change the law.

The agency has become almost irrelevant in agriculture, and sharp reductions in its staff and budget mean that there is little chance, unless there are some unexpected, dramatic changes, that it will fulfill its potential.

One major cause of the diminished importance of the farm labor board is that it has almost lost the source of most of its activity, Cesar Chavez's United Farm Workers of America, the only viable union in agriculture,

The UFW, which has been losing members in recent years, rarely resorts to the agency these days, contending, with considerable validity, that both the union and workers get hurt when they appeal to it for help.

For instance, when farm workers or the union allege that growers have treated them illegally, they can file unfair labor practice charges against the growers with the farm labor board. When the law was passed, even the idea of such legal protection for workers was exciting and a rarity in America.

In its first year, nearly 1,000 charges of unfair labor practices were filed against growers. Even under Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr.'s Administration, which was supposed to be shamefully biased in favor of the union, the workers and their union lost more than half of their cases.

These days, though, only a handful of charges are being filed, and while a number of them may be unjustified, it strains credulity to think that nearly 80% of them are without merit, as decided by David Stirling, the Deukmejian-appointed general counsel of the agency. He has the power to throw out charges he considers unfounded.

In contrast, only about 30% of the charges made against employers by non-farm workers or their unions are dismissed as frivolous by the National Labor Relations Board, which administers federal labor laws. (Those laws do not cover farm workers.)

The California farm board also conducts secret-ballot elections to determine whether workers on a farm want union representation.

In the first year of the law, when it was administered by a board majority that was not pro-grower, union organizing activity was substantial, and the union filed more than 600 petitions for representation elections, winning most of them.

Union organizing has been sharply reduced these days, partly because of the union's own inactivity in the fields as it presses a nationwide boycott of California table grapes.

Union officials contend that a more important reason for the small number of elections now is that often workers who dare help union organizing efforts are fired and do not get the protection the law affords them from the farm labor board.

Equally significant, in the first few years of the law's existence, almost all of the representation elections were sought by unions. Now, more than half of the elections are supported by growers and are aimed at ousting the union. And the union foes almost always win.

Most of the once-controversial farm labor law issues are now almost ignored. The one issue that still concerns some growers--and occupies the time of many attorneys--is the "make-whole remedy."

When growers refuse to negotiate "in good faith" with a union representing their workers, the growers can be required by the farm board to "make whole" their workers, which means paying them the same wages and benefits paid by other growers who did bargain in good faith with the union.

The make-whole remedy could be an effective tool to persuade growers to negotiate in good faith but, while it has been applied several hundred times, few workers have actually received money as a result because the cases are embroiled in seemingly endless litigation.

The law itself is still an excellent one and should serve as a pattern for the nation. But the pro-grower bias of the Deukmejian appointees who run the ALRB has made the law almost meaningless, and clearly it isn't going to be revitalized under this Administration.

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