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Separate Bargaining Units Backed for Pickers

Unions: Coastal Berry committee received more votes last year, but UFW won a majority in Oxnard. Judge's ruling now goes to a labor board.


In a decision that could produce a victory for the United Farm Workers union in Ventura County, a state labor judge has recommended that workers at the nation's largest strawberry grower be represented by separate bargaining units in Oxnard and Watsonville.

The decision is considered a coup for the UFW, which in June lost a statewide election to represent pickers at Coastal Berry Co. to a rival union, the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee.

Although the Coastal Berry committee got more than 50% of the ballots cast statewide in the election, the UFW won a majority of votes cast by the company's 600 harvesters in Oxnard.

The UFW filed a slew of objections to that election, including one saying that Coastal Berry's pickers would be better served by separate bargaining units.

Administrative Law Judge Thomas Sobel agreed, concluding that the two regions have different harvests and draw from different labor pools.

Sobel's decision now goes to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board for consideration.

If the ruling is upheld, the UFW could immediately ask to be declared winner of the June election, a victory that would provide a significant boost to the union's four-year campaign to organize the state's strawberry industry.

"It's a key ruling," said UFW spokesman Marc Grossman, adding that the union intends to continue to challenge the election results in Watsonville.

"Really, what it comes down to is that workers in Ventura County have now twice voted for the UFW," he said. "They want the union, so they should have what they voted for."

Salinas attorney James Gumberg, who represents the Coastal Berry committee, said he plans to file objections to Sobel's ruling, which was issued Monday.

Gumberg said the labor relations board--established in 1975 to referee labor disputes and oversee union elections--made it clear before the June election that it believed that workers should be represented by a single bargaining unit.

He said members of the Coastal Berry committee would have campaigned harder in Oxnard had they known that there was any chance the bargaining unit would be split in two.

Even if the labor board upholds Sobel's decision, Gumberg said he would fight any effort by the UFW to be declared the winner in Oxnard. At the very least, he said, another election should be held for the right to represent the company's Ventura County workers.

"I think the board came down clearly last year and said it should be one statewide unit," Gumberg said. "To go through all this and now say somehow that it should be different than that is tortured logic."

Sobel's ruling is the latest twist in a high-stakes contest to represent Coastal Berry's 1,500 employees.

With unprecedented backing from the AFL-CIO, the UFW launched a campaign four years ago to unionize the more than 20,000 pickers in the state's $600-million-a-year strawberry industry.

Coastal Berry has been at the heart of that campaign.

But the larger union so far has been thwarted by the committee, a loosely knit group formed only last year by workers in Central California.

Workers at the company--which farms about 2,000 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties--narrowly voted in 1998 to be represented by the committee.

The first 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.

However, in both the May and June balloting, the UFW generated majority support in Ventura County.

Joe Wender, senior counsel for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, said separate tallies were kept in case this issue arose.

He said that both parties have until March 20 to file objections to Sobel's decision and that members of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board would consider the matter after that.

Labor lawyer Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., said he has some of the same questions Gumberg has about severing the bargaining unit, adding that the UFW only raised the issue after it lost the statewide contest.

"It's excellent news for the UFW," Roy said. "They got in the back door what they couldn't get through the front door."

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