Farmhands at Gallo of Sonoma cast votes Thursday on whether to oust the United Farm Workers of America from the vintner's fields, less than three years after the union won a hard-fought and much-publicized contract there.
The fieldworkers gathered at ranches across Sonoma County in Northern California shortly after daybreak to weigh in on the petition to break ties with the UFW, filed with the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board last week by workers.
But the uncounted ballots were placed in a safe-deposit box at a Santa Rosa, Calif., bank, pending the outcome of a labor board investigation.
UFW officials charged last week that Gallo representatives illegally pressured workers to sign the decertification petition and that family scion Matthew Gallo promised workers raises if they ousted the union.
Gallo of Sonoma, a unit of E. & J. Gallo Winery, the world's largest winemaker, countered this week with its own charges, alleging that UFW representatives slashed tires and threatened workers and labor contractors. Each party denies the other's allegations.
Fred Capuyan, the labor board's regional director in Salinas, Calif., impounded the ballots while UFW investigators interview workers. Enough information has surfaced against Gallo to compel a response from the company, he said Wednesday in a letter to the parties.
In another sign of escalating tensions, Gallo executives filed a grievance against the UFW this week under the terms of the contract, alleging union officials made "disparaging remarks" about Gallo to the media and demanding $2 million in damages, UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said.
The Gallo contract, signed in September 2000 after six years of talks, marked a milestone for a union that made its name by boycotting grapes -- and for a time, Gallo wines -- under the leadership of Cesar Chavez. A vote against the union by the 329 workers would be a symbolic blow to the UFW, which has struggled to regain prominence since its heyday in the 1970s.