In a victory for the United Farm Workers, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board on Friday threw out election results that would have decertified the union as the bargaining agent for workers at a unit of E.&J.; Gallo Winery, the state’s largest vintner.
The decision upheld a finding by an administrative law judge that supervisors at the company’s upscale Gallo of Sonoma unit had illegally assisted workers who were circulating petitions requesting an election to decertify the UFW.
Friday’s ruling leaves uncounted the ballots cast in the March 13, 2003, decertification contest.
The ruling marks a rare win for the UFW in its struggle to unionize Northern California’s high-end wine industry.
Gallo said in a statement that it was “not surprised by today’s decision given the current makeup of the ALRB board.” All four panel members are Democrats.
The company said it would ask the state Court of Appeal to reverse the ALRB decision. In filings with the labor board, Gallo argued that any alleged involvement of company supervisors with the decertification petition had been on a small scale and could not have affected the outcome of the vote.
UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said the union was pleased that the board had “resolved the issue about our representation.” With the decertification campaign off the table, the union and management can concentrate on signing a contract to replace the one that expired on Nov. 1, 2003, he said. The old accord, one of a handful the UFW has signed with vineyards in Napa and Sonoma counties, covers about 80 direct employees and 200 others hired by independent contractors.
The UFW won the right to organize Gallo’s Sonoma Valley operations in 1994 but didn’t secure a three-year contract with the company until 2000. Talks for a new contract, held sporadically since August, have bogged down over the union’s demand that employees of labor contractors get the same benefits as workers on Gallo’s payroll.
Moreover, the UFW contends that Gallo “continues to pay wages that are inferior to those provided by other wine grape growers in the region,” Grossman said. The negotiations also have been stymied by the contention of anti-union workers that UFW representation has not increased pay and benefits enough to offset the cost of union dues.
Gallo spokesman John Segale said the union’s claim of substandard wages was false. He said Gallo was continuing to honor the terms of the expired contract and noted that the giant winery had been “recognized as having among the best benefits and pay in the industry for all of our employees, including farmworkers.”
The battle over decertification underscores the difficulty that the UFW has encountered in trying to win significant wage gains for farmworkers in California, said Phil Martin, an agricultural economist at the University of California at Davis. “If the union could win larger wage increases, I suspect there may have been less support for decertification,” he said.
The UFW and other unions that try to organize farmworkers face tough battles in winning major concessions from employers in the face of a flood of illegal immigrants willing to work for low pay. “Farm labor organizing in today’s labor market is a case of taking one step forward and maybe a half step back or a whole step back,” Martin said.
Indeed, the UFW is not a big player in California’s $14-billion wine industry, which for the most part gets by without union labor.
C. Mondavi & Sons, the owner of the Charles Krug Winery in St. Helena, is one of the few Napa Valley wineries with a union contract, and the company said the relationship between management and the UFW had improved dramatically over several decades.
“Every little thing is no longer a war,” said Marc Mondavi, a vice president at the winemaker.
Mondavi said he believed the UFW hadn’t made more headway in the industry because most wineries paid wages at the union’s scale or higher. The companies also offer a better medical insurance package, he said.
Although Gallo has had a fractious relationship with the UFW, the company is known for offering its workers some unique perks, including a soccer field on top of a 130,000-square-foot barrel room that is sunk into the ground at the Sonoma site.
Gallo of Sonoma is Modesto-based Gallo’s high-end wine operation. In addition to Gallo of Sonoma, its labels include Rancho Zabaco, MacMurray and Frei Brothers.
The facility turns out about 3 million cases of wine annually, just a fraction of the roughly 58 million cases of California wine Gallo produces. Gallo makes 27% of the wine produced in California and is by far the state’s largest winemaker.