Pushing a contentious labor battle closer to a conclusion, state officials have set a hearing on a slew of objections filed in an election to represent pickers at the nation's largest strawberry grower.
Workers at Costal Berry Co. in Oxnard and Watsonville cast ballots in June in the high-stakes contest, which pit the venerated United Farm Workers union against the upstart Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee.
The committee won the battle at the ballot box. But the UFW filed 234 objections to the election, alleging a variety of violations, including voter intimidation.
The Agricultural Labor Relations Board this week dismissed 135 of those complaints, but will hold a Dec. 7 hearing on the remaining 99 before an administrative law judge.
If just one of those objections is upheld, the election could be overturned, prompting yet another showdown between the labor rivals.
"We recognize that overturning an election requires a pretty high threshold, but we believe that many of the objections we filed were very substantive," UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said.
The Coastal Berry election is the cornerstone of the UFW's three-year campaign to organize the state's 20,000 strawberry workers.
But the larger union so far has been thwarted by the upstart committee, a loosely knit group formed only last year by workers in Central California.
The committee first proved its appeal last year when it won an election at Coastal Berry over the UFW. The results were thrown out, however, after a labor judge ruled that the company had failed to notify 162 of its workers in Oxnard that they could vote.
That set up a rematch in May, when the committee fell just five votes short of the simple majority needed to win the election outright. That forced a runoff election in June, where the committee emerged victorious with 725 votes compared with 616 for the UFW.
Now the UFW's hopes rest with the labor board, which this week found enough evidence to determine that a significant number of the UFW objections, if proven to be true, could have changed the outcome of the election.
Those objections include allegations that company supervisors passed out hats emblazoned with anti-UFW slogans and that supporters of the anti-union effort told workers that the company's strawberry fields would be plowed under if the UFW was victorious.
In addition, the UFW alleges that many pickers were led to believe that other area growers were maintaining a blacklist of known UFW supporters, workers who would be blackballed from future farm employment.
"The party objecting to the election has a very heavy burden of proof that could warrant setting aside the election," said Norma Turner, acting executive secretary for the state board. "But ultimately, the bottom line is whether there was conduct that would have interfered with an employee's free choice."