No state holiday, street, school or park will ever be named for her, but Silvia Lopez is a modern day hero. She is leading an acrimonious fight on behalf of thousands of California farmworkers. Her story is one of courage, perseverance and righteousness — and it needs to be shared.
Silvia Lopez has been an employee of Gerawan Farming for many years. Gerawan Farming is one of the largest tree fruit producers in the country and employs more than 10,000 workers in Fresno County. Two years ago, Silvia learned for the first time that the United Farm Workers Union (UFW) claimed to be the certified bargaining representative of Gerawan Farming employees. This came as a shock since the union had not been seen at Gerawan for two decades.
The UFW did win a runoff election and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) did certify the UFW as the exclusive bargaining representative of Gerawan Farming’s employees back when George H. W. Bush was president. However after one bargaining session, the union vanished — not taking access, collecting dues or representing Gerawan employees — for more than 20 years. Then in 2012, the union reemerged demanding to negotiate its first contract with Gerawan Farming.
Even more shocking to Silvia was when she learned that the UFW was demanding a contract that would compel Gerawan Farming employees to pay 3 percent of their gross wages as union dues or fees, or risk being fired. Silvia didn’t think that was fair; she didn’t need a third-party to explain her rights or improve wages or working conditions. She says she knows her rights, plus Gerawan Farming is reputed to have good working conditions and pays wages that are higher than the industry average.
So Silvia and other employees got busy collecting more than 2,600 signatures, and presented a petition to the ALRB seeking an opportunity to vote on whether they wanted to be represented by the UFW. But the ALRB regional director tossed out the petition claiming employer interference and ALRB declined to set an election claiming the petition did not demonstrate the “showing of interest” needed to call a vote.
Not to be deterred, Silvia collected nearly 3,000 new signatures, far more than needed to compel an election, and presented a new petition to the regional director. After the regional director tried once again to dismiss the petition, Silvia led her fellow employees in mass protests outside of Gerawan Farming. They marched all the way to Governor Brown’s office in Sacramento demanding an election. This time, the ALRB reversed the regional director’s decision and ordered an election. In November 2013, thousands of Gerawan employees cast their secret ballots to vote on whether they wanted to be represented by the UFW.
While all of this was going on, the union evoked the state’s Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation (MMC) statute to force Gerawan Farming into an arbitration proceeding, the conclusion of which would result in a “collective bargaining agreement” imposed on Gerawan Farming and its employees by the ALRB. When Silvia and the Gerawan Farming employees sought to participate in the MMC proceedings, the regional director and the mediator denied their request claiming that the employees’ interests were represented by the UFW. The employees went to court, claiming they were unfairly shut out of, and unrepresented in, a process that would significantly impact their interests.
After the tally of the ballots, the winner was…. well, we still don’t know because the ALRB has “impounded” them, refusing to count the ballots until union-alleged pre-election “irregularities” are investigated. The election took place more than 10 months ago, and as of this writing, no investigation has taken place, and the votes have not been counted.
On behalf of the Gerawan workers, Silvia Lopez and a group of Gerawan workers filed a lawsuit in federal court against the ALRB claiming their civil rights had been violated, and asking that their ballots be counted. The ALRB filed a motion to dismiss the employees’ suit, but a Federal District Court judge denied the motion, holding that the suit presents a plausible claim of “forced association” in violation of workers’ First Amendment rights. Sylvia’s lawsuit on behalf of her co-workers is now slowly winding its way through the court process, while the ALRB continues to drag out the administrative process.
Given the overwhelming reaction against the union, and paltry support for the union, it appears that the final tally, if the votes are ever counted, will not be close. If that is the case, the ALRB would be hard-pressed to find that any alleged misconduct affected the results of the election.
So why not count the ballots now? Lopez fought hard to win the right to an election by the ALRB. But if the votes are not counted, it’s tantamount to no election being conducted at all.
It is a time-honored maxim that “justice delayed is justice denied.” The ALRB has a duty to count the votes after a representation election. If a court ultimately rules that a MMC contract must be imposed on Gerawan Farming and the workers, the election will be rendered moot. That would be a travesty of justice. Either way, Silvia Lopez should always be remembered for her courageous fight on behalf of farm workers for the right not to join a union.
Join Western Growers
Western Growers members care deeply for the food they grow, the land they sustain, the people they employ, and the community in which they live.