Farm workers all over California paused during the busy fall harvest a decade ago to vote for the union of their choice.
It was a heady beginning. Some predicted the wave of elections would bring radical change to California’s farms.
But the prospect that union representation elections would be held on thousands of California farms, which employ an estimated 250,000 workers, has never materialized.
For the most part, however, there has been peace in the fields, or at least a lack of violence, in the decade since elections began.
Violence had marred California’s farm labor history for years. Shootings and mass jailings of pickets during the summer of 1973, when grape growers switched from Cesar Chavez’s United Farm Workers to the Teamsters, helped convince the Legislature to enact the law providing elections.
The preamble to the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act said its purpose was “to ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations.”
The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s first election took place on Sept. 5, 1975, at a small asparagus field near Watsonville. It was the crest of a flood of union representation elections that numbered 419 by the time the agency ran out of money the following February.
At hastily erected voting booths in barns, the farm workers lined up to cast secret ballots to be represented by the UFW, the Teamsters or no union at all, if that was what they wanted.
Two-thirds of the votes at individual ranches took place during a hectic seven-week period at the height of harvest through mid-October.
Those closest to the elections expressed differing views about their value and impact.
“It’s going to bring about a stability we’ve never had before,” said then-Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr., a chief architect of the legislation that established secret ballot union elections.
“It was sheer chaos of the rankest order,” recalled Ed Thomas, executive manager of a table grape growers’ organization, the South Central Farmers Committee. “Nobody quite knew what the law meant. The ALRB was making up rules as it went along.”
But Thomas also remembered the fall of 1975 “as one of the most colorful times I’ve ever been associated with. It was on the cutting edge of unionism for agriculture.”
After the agency ran out of funds in February, 1976, it wasn’t revived until the following July, and never again was there as much impetus to hold large numbers of elections. For example, in the year ending last June 30 the state held representation votes at only 31 farms.
Complaints Also Studied
In addition to conducting representation elections, the ALRB also investigates complaints by workers and farmers. The board’s investigations can be lengthy and involved.
Growers charged that the ALRB was pro-UFW when Brown, a Democrat and ardent Chavez supporter, named its members and chief staffers. Today Chavez charges that the agency under Republican Gov. George Deukmejian favors growers.
Chavez, who 20 years ago this month began the Delano table grape strike that made him famous, has launched a new boycott of table grapes, contending that “the law that guarantees our right to organize has been shut down. It doesn’t work anymore.”
Of about 30 table grape growers, the UFW has contracts with three growers that employ a total of about 150 workers, according to Thomas.
The Most. Rev. Roger Mahony, the newly installed archbishop of the Roman Catholic Archdiocese of Los Angeles and the ALRB’s first chairman, recently wrote in an analysis of the agency’s first decade:
“While the new law has greatly reduced field strikes and work stoppages in our important agricultural industry, only some 10% of the state’s farm worker force has had any direct involvement with the law and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.”
Mahony also noted that the state’s farm workers still earn slightly over minimum wage. The average statewide age is $5.30 per hour, he said.
Mahony found fault with everyone: growers who consider farm labor elections “another pest to be eradicated at all costs,” attorneys who have made the many unfair labor practice charges “a lawyer’s paradise,” a political “cross fire” in which the agency is accused of being “biased on the one hand and understaffed on the other,” and finally unions which “need to become more professional in servicing their labor contracts.”