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Bill Could End Impasse at Pictsweet

Unions: State legislation backed by UFW would require arbitration in farm labor disputes. Talks at the Ventura plant have stalled.

July 08, 2002|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Workers embroiled in a long-running contract dispute with owners of Southern California's largest mushroom farm are pinning their hopes on proposed legislation that could force a settlement in the stalemate.

The bill, written by state Senate leader John Burton (D-San Francisco) and backed by the United Farm Workers union, would permit binding, third-party arbitration in cases where farm labor negotiations reach an impasse.

That appears to be the case at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura, where workers have been without a contract since 1987 and talks in recent years between the company and the UFW have failed to progress.

The standoff has turned nasty at times. The UFW has accused the company of bad-faith bargaining and violating other labor laws in a flurry of charges filed with the state's farm labor board. An opposition group has launched a campaign aimed at decertifying the UFW, contending it no longer represents the will of the workers. And the company has laid off workers in response to a union-led boycott of Pictsweet products that has driven away some of its most valuable customers.

The state Senate passed the binding arbitration legislation in May. The bill is now making its way through the Assembly, where 40 members--one short of the majority needed for passage--have pledged support by signing on as co-authors.

That puts it on track to reach Gov. Gray Davis' desk in coming weeks, presenting what some say is a potential election-year dilemma for the governor as he tries to balance the interests of organized labor and California's farm industry.

"The governor is going to have to demonstrate whether he is with the people or with the corporations," said mushroom picker Jose Luis Luna, who has worked at the Pictsweet plant for 21 years. He testified before the Legislature earlier this year on the bill's passage.

"It is of monumental importance that this law go through," he said. "The company has the economic strength to prolong this dispute to try to wear us down."

The bill has some detractors.

Farm industry groups say no other private enterprise is required to use binding arbitration to settle labor disputes. Only public safety employees, such as police officers and firefighters who are barred by law from striking during labor negotiations, have that remedy available.

Growers say the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 1975 to referee farm labor disputes and oversee union elections, has remedies in place for cases in which growers refuse to negotiate fairly.

The proposed legislation would amend that landmark farm law for the first time since its passage 27 years ago by imposing binding arbitration in agricultural labor disputes.

Pictsweet workers seeking to oust the UFW say that the union does not represent their interests and that a majority of laborers would support decertification, if the matter were put to a vote. In such an election, workers could decide whether they wanted the UFW to continue to represent them.

Those workers have submitted three decertification petitions to the farm labor board since 2000. The first was rejected because it contained invalid signatures. The others were blocked after the labor board found evidence to support charges by the UFW that the company was engaging in unfair labor practices. Those charges included allegations that the company supported the decertification effort, which is not allowed.

The anti-UFW workers contend that the union filed the charges only because it feared that it would be ousted in a representation election.

They have launched a letter-writing campaign aimed at making state and local elected officials aware of their views. A letter sent to Sacramento last week urged Assembly members to reject the binding arbitration legislation.

"If that law passes, we are automatically going to have a contract that we don't want and we don't need," said Pictsweet employee Guillermo Virgen, who gathered last week with more than three dozen opposition workers outside the plant.

"We don't have the economic force or the political force that the union has, but we want the public to know that all we want is an election so that the workers can express what they want to have happen at this plant," Virgen said.

Company officials did not return phone calls seeking comment.

The UFW first won a contract at the Ventura mushroom farm in 1975, in one of the first elections held under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, union officials said. The agreement paved the way for the union to negotiate contracts with half a dozen other mushroom growers in California and Florida.

The union maintained contracts with a series of owners at the Ventura plant over the years, but that ended when Tennessee-based United Foods Inc. bought it in 1987.

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