An administrative law judge dealt the state's largest grower of peaches and nectarines a key labor setback, ruling that a worker vote that sought to decertify the United Farm Workers union should be nullified.
The judge, Mark Soble, found that Gerawan Farms unduly influenced the 2013 decertification effort by giving preferential treatment to workers organizing the campaign, including introducing them to a funding source.
In addition, the judge found, Gerawan Farms allowed pro-decertification workers to distribute literature during the workday but prohibited pro-UFW workers from doing so.
"Given that the unlawful conduct tainted the entire decertification process, any election results would not sufficiently reflect the unrestrained free expression of the bargaining-unit members," the judge said in the decision.
Ron Barsamian, an attorney for Gerawan Farms, said the company would ask the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to reject the ruling. Dan Gerawan, the company's co-owner, said he was disappointed by the decision.
"To destroy ballots after the majority of employees asked for an election is wrong and undemocratic," Gerawan said. "Thousands of our employees were told by the ALRB they had the right to vote as they wanted. To now say their votes won't be counted is wrong and disrespectful to workers and their right of free choice."
The case has its roots in a labor dispute going back more than two decades when the UFW first won the right to represent Gerawan workers.
And the campaign to oust the UFW involved one of the biggest worker mobilizations in years — a bitter irony for the union founded by Cesar Chavez, the legendary farmworkers leader.
The union had been certified to represent workers in 1992 but never secured a contract. Gerawan has argued that the UFW abandoned the 3,000 workers for nearly two decades. Working without a contract, Gerawan laborers received some of the highest wages in the industry.
In 2012, the UFW returned to Gerawan and attempted to negotiate a new labor contract. After talks stalled, a mediator imposed a contract, which was approved by the agricultural labor board in fall 2013.
In May, a state appeals court threw out that labor contract, saying the process violated Gerawan's constitutional rights. That decision is now before the state Supreme Court.
Gerawan workers, pushing for the 2013 vote, had signed petitions seeking to end their representation by the UFW. Several thousand ballots they cast were impounded and never counted because of UFW complaints that Gerawan had unduly influenced the process.
The battle became one of the most closely watched farm labor fights in the state. Soble heard testimony over 105 days, into March, before issuing his ruling Thursday.
Gerawan said it would ask the full agricultural labor board to reject the judge's decision and count the workers' ballots.
"These are judgment calls. Once the judge makes the decision, he's got to make a fairly clear error before it gets overturned," said Philip Martin, a professor emeritus at UC Davis who has closely watched the labor battle. "Therefore, it's more than likely that the vote in this election may not be counted."
The judge said he was swayed by evidence that one of the workers who organized the petition drive to remove the UFW had accepted $20,000 from a statewide growers group to support the decertification effort.
This dispute is probably months away from resolution, Martin said.
"If you were a pro-union person, this case shows the difficulty unions have in winning contracts and organizing workers," he said. "For a person that doesn't follow this, the main message is [that] labor relations in agriculture are very contentious and nothing is ever simple."