The Western Growers Association is leading a farm coalition to strengthen support for a lawsuit against the Agricultural Labor Relations Board  and United Farm Workers. The 11 associations have filed an amicus brief endorsing the challenge by Wonderful Nurseries LLC asking to halt implementation of new card check regulations for union elections.

The Wonderful Co., a major producer of almonds, pistachios, mandarins and juice, has been battling UFW in ongoing closed-door sessions at ALRB. It is accusing the union of misleading farmworkers into believing they were applying for federal benefits when they were actually signing ballot cards.

UFW had submitted support cards from more than 600 employees. But a third of those workers later swore that UFW deceived them and that they had no intention to unionize, according to the company.

Barry BroadBarry Broad, ALRB

During an ALRB hearing in March, Carl Borden, senior counsel at the California Farm Bureau, pleaded with the board to take the allegations “seriously and investigate early and promptly.” Despite the objections, the ALRB confirmed UFW’s representation, the third card check election for the board to approve. The farmworkers who made the charges held demonstrations to protest the decision at a regional board office in Visalia.

In 2022, facing pressure from President Joe Biden and other Democratic leaders, Gov. Gavin Newsom approved card check through Assembly Bill 2183, with a promise to address the concerns of agricultural opponents through “clean-up” legislation the following year. During policy hearings, proponents described the bill as simply establishing an option for voting by mail in union elections, downplaying criticism from farm lobbyists that the bill was card check in disguise.

After signing the bill, Newsom expedited clean-up legislation the following spring as a policy rider within a budget trailer bill. It removed the vote-by-mail option, narrowing the focus to enacting a card check system that allows unions to gather ballot signatures in place of an election.

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ALRB enacted the initial card check regulations last year and is set to approve the clean-up regulations on Wednesday.

In its lawsuit, Wonderful claims the law is unconstitutional and calls the union certification illegitimate.

The brief filed last week by the farm groups went further, arguing the elimination of the secret ballot process undermines the right of workers to freely choose representation, exposes farms to chaos and legal uncertainties and could overwhelm ALRB’s limited capacity. The attorneys described secret ballots as the heart of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975.

The brief pointed to the legal precedent set in 2018 under a contentious union election involving Gerawan Farming. ALRB had tallied the votes five years after the election and only after a court mandate. Just one out of every five workers had voted in favor of unionizing. According to the brief, “the votes of employees are of paramount importance.”

One of the most ardent critics of ALRB’s handling of the Gerawan case is Republican Senator Shannon Grove of Bakersfield, who serves on the Rules Committee. During a committee hearing last week on Newsom’s reappointment of Barry Broad to the board, Grove again raised her skepticism about the agency. She relayed constituent concerns that, ahead of organizing events, UFW had already filled out ballot cards with each worker’s name and laid them out on tables awaiting signatures.

Broad stressed to the committee ALRB has made efforts to communicate to farmworkers the new de facto process. Each card should have language explaining it counts as a vote. But he lamented that the ALRB is not involved until after the election and can only educate the employees at that time and the agency has about 50 staff members, limiting its outreach ability. 

Under a previous process, employers could object prior to elections taking place. With card check, they can only object afterward. Yet Broad assured Grove any of the parties can file charges of unfair labor practices if they feel misrepresented or intimidated, with such a determination invalidating the vote.

In his role leading the ALRB subcommittee drafting card check regulations, Broad has directly dealt with complaints from employers over the complex and murky regulatory process.

“We've made it as much of a stakeholder-heavy process as we could possibly make it,” said Broad. “There's good ideas, there's bad ideas and, frankly, there's dumb ideas. People can like or dislike it, but you don't want it to be dumb. You want it to work.”

Both the California Labor Federation and Western United Dairies supported Broad’s nomination, along with the Rules Committee.

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