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Farmworkers union claims victory in labour battle with large California fruit grower

Decision issued on Thursday ends a decades-long dispute

Organized labour claimed a victory in a decades-long fight with one of the nation's largest fruit growers when a judge ruled that the company interfered with its employees' vote on whether to reject union representation.

A decision issued late Thursday sets aside an election held nearly two years ago by workers at Gerawan Farming Inc., which hires thousands of people annually to harvest nectarines, peaches and grapes in California's Central Valley. It says Gerawan used unfair labour practices in its support of a key worker who organized the campaign against the United Farm Workers.

The farmworkers' votes remain locked up and uncounted amid the dispute.

The decision says a Gerawan employee, Silvia Lopez, unlawfully asked for and received $20,000 from a fruit growers association affiliated with Gerawan to fund the anti-union fight. It says that on one day, Lopez physically blocked workers from the farm to collect roughly 1,000 signatures calling for a vote to reject the UFW, and Gerawan unfairly granted Lopez time off work to lead the effort.

Gerawan also made a "well-timed'' wage increase to win the favour of workers, Administrative Law Judge Mark Soble said, citing evidence he considered to dismiss the petition that sought the vote.

"The misconduct created an environment which would have made it impossible for true employee free choice when it came time to vote,'' Soble's ruling concludes.

Dan Gerawan, who runs the family business in Fresno County, said in a statement that his workers are being denied their democratic rights by leaving the ballots uncounted.

Labour relations in agriculture are often highly contentious, said Philip Martin, professor emeritus of agricultural and resource economics at University of California, Davis, and the feud between the UFW and Gerawan Farming started more than two decades ago.

"Clearly, this illustrates the difficulty of negotiating agreements in agriculture,'' Martin said.

The labour dispute between Gerawan and the union launched by iconic farm labour leader Cesar Chavez dates to 1992, when the UFW began to represent the farmworkers but didn't negotiate a labour contract. Union leaders have said they backed off at the time because they were overpowered by Gerawan. They returned recently ready to take on the company and represent its workers.

Gerawan said the UFW abandoned his employees for 20 years.

"We support our employees' right to choose and will never waver from that,'' Gerawan said. ``Our message to the employees has been consistent.''

The UFW's national vice-president, Armando Elenes, called the ruling a victory for farmworkers.

"All we ask for is that the company obeys the law,'' Elenes said.

The 192-page ruling stems from a hearing that spanned 105 days with 130 witnesses testifying.

Paul Bauer, the attorney representing Lopez, said he was still reading the extensive decision. The evidence does not support many of the allegations, he said. The desire to drive the union from Gerawan was the farmworkers' alone, said Bauer, adding that roughly 2,500 workers signed the petition to hold the vote, indicating their desire not to be represented by the UFW.

Gerawan attorney Ronald Barsamian said the company expects to appeal to the state's Agriculture Labor Relations Board, and appeals could send the case to the California Supreme Court. Gerawan was not allowed in the hearing to argue that the union had abandoned its workers, something that Barsamian says is a cornerstone of the dispute.

"The UFW succeeded in keeping the lid on the ballot box for another day,'' Barsamian said. ``They don't want the truth to come out. They don't want the workers' votes to be counted.''

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