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Gallo Workers Demand a Count of Sealed Ballots

August 11, 2004|Gabrielle Banks | Times Staff Writer

SACRAMENTO — One of the oldest battles in California agriculture escalated again Tuesday when a group of Gallo farmworkers who want to oust their union, the United Farm Workers, traveled to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board office to demand that officials count ballots that have been sealed since 2003.

In March 2003, Gallo workers voted on whether the union should still represent them. But the labor board has postponed counting the ballots until it resolves allegations that the company coerced its workers into signing petitions that led to the election. The company contends that if the approximately 325 ballots were ever counted, the union would lose its right to represent Gallo workers.

In December, an administrative law judge ruled that the company had unfairly influenced workers and recommended that the vote be tossed out, a decision that has now been appealed to the board.

The dispute over the 2003 election to decertify the union has become entangled with contract negotiations at the Sonoma winery. Workers have been without a contract since November and union officials are preparing to boycott Gallo products if it is not settled soon.

In the early '70s, the union founded by the late Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta mobilized a massive boycott of Gallo wine on behalf of workers. It won an election to represent Gallo workers in 1994 and signed a contract with the company after six years of protracted negotiations.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez presented Gallo officials last week with a petition signed by 25,000 UFW supporters who are prepared to boycott the company if negotiations do not succeed.

Also last week, Norma Turner, the general counsel and chief investigator for the ALRB, who is independent of the board, ordered the ballots counted. The board immediately overruled her, saying she had overstepped her bounds.

The 22 farmworkers who made the two-hour trip from Santa Rosa had worked at Gallo between one and 33 years. Some members of the group said they had taken the day off work without pay to thank Turner for her decision and urge the board to open the ballots. Union opponents believe the vote would go against the UFW, which could affect the legal status of contract negotiations.

Pro-union and anti-union workers no longer tolerate each other's company, the workers said.

"It's like a battlefield at work," said Maria Isabel Hernandez, 49. "It's a war. We don't look at each other or talk."

Marc Grossman, UFW spokesman, questioned the motivation for the trip. "A group that big, how did they get there? Who paid? Did they come in a bus? In vans? That's a relevant question given Gallo's history of illegally interfering with the election process," he said.

Gallo representatives said the workers were not paid for the day and it is within their rights to ask for a day off.

The workers who traveled to the capital Tuesday say they want the ballots counted before a new contract can be signed. Board members said they will be in position to make a decision after a hearing on Sept. 10.

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