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Charges Arise Over UFW Dues

March 24, 2004|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

Rekindling a battle over unionization at Southern California's largest mushroom farm, a right-to-work group Tuesday accused the United Farm Workers union of illegally collecting dues and threatening workers at the plant.

In charges filed with the state's farm labor board, the National Right to Work Foundation alleges that UFW officials intentionally misled workers at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura by telling them they were required to pay full union dues as a condition of employment. The group contends that workers have a right to pay only that portion of dues that covers representational costs, such as collective bargaining and contract administration.

The group also alleges that UFW officials forced workers to authorize the automatic deduction of full union dues from their paychecks and threatened workers with a loss of pension, medical and other benefits if they failed to comply.

The charges were filed on behalf of two employees at the mushroom farm, where workers last month won a new three-year contract after 17 years of working without one. The foundation seeks reimbursement for those workers and others at the plant who have paid more than required in dues.

"The UFW union hierarchy wants workers simply to shut up and pay up," said Stefan Gleason, vice president of the Virginia-based foundation, which seeks to end compulsory union membership.

UFW officials dispute the allegations, saying the union has complied with provisions of California's Agricultural Labor Relations Act in enforcing its contract at Pictsweet. Moreover, UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said the 2% of their salaries paid by workers in dues goes strictly to cover representational costs.

"These are the costs of negotiations, contract administration and running the union -- 100% of our dues go to that," said Grossman, adding that the foundation has continued to target the UFW in pushing its anti-union agenda. "We like to call it the 'Right to Work for Less Foundation.' "

This is not the first time the union and foundation have tangled.

Three years ago, the right-to-work group accused the UFW of orchestrating the firing of 150 harvesters at an Oxnard berry company who had refused to pay full union dues. Late last year, lawyers for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board issued a formal complaint against the union. The UFW has contested the allegations and the matter is pending.

The charges filed Tuesday will prompt the farm labor board to investigate the allegations to determine whether they have merit and whether the union should be civilly prosecuted.

"It's becoming a trend," said Justin Hakes, the foundation's assistant director of legal information. "Workers are becoming emboldened to challenge a union hierarchy that has never been challenged before."

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