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Dramatic Turnabout : Senate Democrats Move to Cripple Farm Labor Board

Times Staff Writer

Complaining that the membership of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board is stacked in favor of growers, Democratic budget writers in the Senate voted Thursday to put the agency out of business.

The move, which also appears to have support among some key Assembly Democrats, represented a dramatic turnabout for an agency that was set up under the Democratic Administration of Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. 11 years ago and for years drew fire from Republicans for an alleged pro-labor bias.

If the Senate budget writers’ action is sustained by both houses, the board would remain on the lawbooks but without any money, a situation that some legal experts say could leave farm labor law in chaos.

Denouncing the vote as a political “sham,” Senate Minority Leader James W. Nielsen of Woodland, the only Republican on the three-member budget subcommittee, charged that the action was “a payoff to one union,” the United Farm Workers, which has been quietly lobbying for elimination of the board. The UFW is one of the biggest contributors to Democratic legislative election campaigns.

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“This came down from the highest levels of the Democratic leadership,” Nielsen declared.

Sen. Bill Greene (D-Los Angeles), who chaired the budget hearing, insisted that he acted independently and voted to strip the board of any funds because it no longer represents workers “and that’s who I want to serve. I’m here to represent people, not agencies.”

Democratic dissatisfaction with the board began shortly after Republican Gov. George Deukmejian took office and appointed former Republican Assemblyman David Stirling, a grower ally and longtime critic of the UFW, as its chief lawyer.

Assembly budget writers tried unsuccessfully last year to write Stirling’s office out of the state budget, contending that he had drastically cut the number of unfair labor practices cases filed against growers.

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But political opposition to the board seemed to multiply this year when a series of Deukmejian appointments cost labor its majority on the board for the first time since it was created in 1975. At the time, the board was hailed by labor and management alike as a historic answer to years and years of violence in the fields.

UFW Wants Board Eliminated

The UFW, whose strife-laden organizing efforts gave birth to the board, suddenly turned against it last year, calling a grape boycott to publicize its opposition to the agency and finally asking lawmakers to do away with it.

“We got along before without the ALRB,” said Roberto de la Cruz, the UFW’s political director. “The board, when it first began, was working and defending farm workers. Since the Deukmejian Administration took office, they have now gone back and used the board to oppress farm workers.”

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Stirling, however, noted that the UFW represents only about 10% of California farm workers, adding that there appeared to be no genuine outcry for “this drastic action” and no evidence presented publicly to justify it.

Similar in operation to the National Labor Relations Board, the state board was formed to mediate disputes and protect the rights of farm worker unions to organize and conduct secret ballot organizing elections.

A hint of serious trouble arose Wednesday when Assembly Democrats appeared poised to go after Stirling and the board in a budget-writing session.

However, Los Angeles Democrat Maxine Waters, who chaired the Assembly budget writing hearing, was unable to gain solid support from the committee’s Democratic majority and was forced to delay a vote on providing no budget for the board.

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Governor Downplays Situation

Deukmejian, whose appointments to the board have touched off much of the Democratic discontent, downplayed the seriousness of the situation but chided Democrats for suddenly backing away from the board that they created. He told reporters: “Now that we have a little fairness, they don’t want it to operate anymore. . . .”

Strongly supported by agricultural interests in his first campaign for governor, Deukmejian promised to eliminate the board’s alleged pro-labor tilt and return “fairness” to the agency.

Critics of the agency maintain that unresponsiveness of the board has led to a 50% drop in the number of complaints filed by unions and farm workers since the last year of the Brown Administration while nearly 80% of all charges filed this year were dismissed by Stirling’s office.

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While conceding that the board’s emphasis has changed, Stirling cited figures showing that during the Deukmejian years more than $2 million has been distributed to farm workers from settlements with growers and 98 union elections have been conducted. “I’m proud of our record,” he said.

Waters countered that there appears to be little reason for the agency to exist. “Farmers have had problems with the ALRB and so have farm workers,” she said. “If no one is happy, why should we continue to fund it?”

Big Unanswered Question

One of the big unanswered questions is how farm labor disputes would be resolved if there is no board. Stirling and others claimed that existing labor law gives exclusive jurisdiction to the board to oversee representation elections, certification of bargaining units and new contracts.

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So long as the board continues to exist, even without any money, Stirling and some labor lawyers maintain that farm workers and unions will have no place to turn to resolve disputes.

“If the agency is not funded, the law still stays on the books,” said ALRB Chairwoman Jyrl James-Massengale, a labor lawyer appointed by Deukmejian. “It would be illegal for new organizing efforts to take place. . . . Farm workers will have less rights.”

James-Massengale and Stirling also pointed out that millions of dollars owed to workers from cases against growers could not be distributed if the agency was shut down.

The UFW’s De la Cruz said those awards could total as much as $100 million, but he said workers are unlikely to receive the money under the current board makeup.

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‘Gutted the Law’

“They literally have gutted the law,” he said. “From my point of view, if (the Legislature eliminates) its budget, it’s better for us because at least it stops (the board) from coming in and oppressing the workers.”

So far, Democrats who have indicated a desire to shut down the agency all come from urban areas, and it was unclear how the plan might be received by rural Democrats who have close ties to growers as well as organized labor.

Both Assembly Speaker Willie Brown (D-San Francisco) and Senate President Pro Tem David A. Roberti (D-Los Angeles) have kept their distance publicly from the issue, saying they issued no orders to budget writers.

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