May 1, 2024

Big Ag’s Latest Blow to Workers’ Rights

Will California’s new farmworker labor law survive this assault by the not-so-wonderful Wonderful Company?

David Bacon
UFW President Teresa Romero and marchers at the beginning of the 22-day march to Sacramento to win the card check bill. (David Bacon)

It took two marches from the southern San Joaquin Valley to Sacramento, and months of mobilization and pressure on Governor Gavin Newsom, to get a “card check” law for farmworkers. In the end, though, on September 28, 2022, he signed AB 2183, giving California’s field workers the best agricultural labor law in the country.

Today, that law is in danger. In a courthouse in Bakersfield, California, a hearing opened last week to undo the law’s first landmark achievement—the certification of the United Farm Workers as the union for workers at Wonderful Nurseries: the largest vine nursery in North America. A union in this 640-worker operation could lead to organizing the rest of the gigantic Wonderful agribusiness complex, which employs over 7,000 grape, nut and tree fruit laborers.

At stake, however, is more than just a union at Wonderful. The hearing has become the focal point of a campaign, combining politics, the media, and union busting, that takes aim at AB2183 itself.

Inside the hearing room, Wonderful attorney Ronald Barsamian, a lawyer with a long record of fighting unions, claims that the UFW’s certification should be set aside because organizers tricked workers into signing union cards. Supporting the company is James Young, a lawyer for the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, who says he represents 20 anti-union workers. The foundation’s website says it seeks “to eliminate coercive union power [and] provide free legal aid to these victimized employees.”

Outside the building, a noisy group shows up periodically, waving placards claiming that Wonderful workers don’t want a union, demanding that the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) rescind the certification. As TV cameras zoom in, one demonstrator in particular, Ana Lopez, makes an oft-repeated anti-union speech, in English—a language most farmworkers don’t speak.

According to the UFW, Ana Lopez is not even on the list of nursery employees supplied by the company as part of the legal process. One worker told me she is the sister of a company foreman. In reality, her presence is part of a theater organized by Wonderful management, and orchestrated by Raul Calvo, a well-known California union buster.

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If the ALRB invalidates UFW’s certification, Wonderful wins and doesn’t have to bargain. Other companies would likely pursue the same strategy, perhaps shutting down implementation of the new law. But if the ALRB upholds the certification, then Wonderful will undoubtedly appeal the decision in court. Not only could a judge then throw out that certification, but he or she could go beyond that to invalidate the law itself. In an increasingly conservative court system, that outcome is all too possible.

“The goal here is to get rid of card check,” says Chris Schneider, who retired two years ago as regional director of the ALRB Visalia office. “I suspect the industry is supporting this, and possibly even helping to fund it.”

Wonderful wouldn’t need much assistance, though. Its sales topped $4 billion in 2023, and its co-owners, Stewart and Lynda Resnick, are worth over $10 billion, which made them the wealthiest growers in the United States in 2018. Today, their Wonderful brand of pistachios, almonds, pomegranates and grapes is rivaled only by Driscoll Berries as the most recognizable agricultural products in the world, dominating supermarket shelves everywhere.

Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill. (David Bacon)

A union campaign under the new law

Workers began to challenge Wonderful’s power when they started meeting with UFW organizers in the fall of 2023, after the new law went into effect. AB 2183 modified the original Agricultural Labor Relations Act, passed in 1975, by allowing workers to sign union cards outside of work, and then use those cards to force their employer to recognize their union. The old 1975 law needed to be strengthened, its proponents said, because, for 40 years, growers have used massive intimidation to prevent workers from voting freely in union elections on company property.

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Using the new law, once a majority of workers have signed up, a union gives the signed cards to the ALRB. After the board verifies that the union has majority support, it certifies the union as the workers’ bargaining representative. The company is then obligated to negotiate a contract. If it refuses, the union can ask for a mediator, and the board can impose a contract on the grower. Even if the grower appeals the certification, it still has to bargain unless that certification is overturned. That mandatory mediation of first time contracts was itself a modification of the original law in 2002, caused by growers’ almost universal refusal to negotiate contracts even when workers did win elections.

Maria is another worker who signed a card. A union organizer came to her home and told her that other workers in the nursery were trying to form a union and get a contract. “I wanted a union because there’s a lot of favoritism and discrimination,” she told me. Maria, who wanted her name kept confidential to avoid retaliation for speaking out, is not employed directly by Wonderful. She works for Guerrero Farm Labor, one of four labor contractors Wonderful uses to supply workers without directly hiring them. Because she works for a contractor, she gets no benefits like a medical plan or paid holidays. Under the state labor law, however, she is considered a Wonderful employee, and can sign a card and join the union.

People employed directly by the nursery work year-round, but contracted workers only have jobs from January to June. “When the season ends they select certain people who can stay on, the favorites of the foremen,” Maria charges. “The rest of us get laid off.” When she’s working she makes $16.35 per hour. She and her husband, also a farmworker, have three children. “Everything is so expensive we can hardly make it when we’re working, and what we can buy is very limited. When the work ends, we try to get other jobs, but we can hardly survive.”

The Wonderful company’s argument that workers were tricked is based on a deliberate mischaracterization of events, in which it charges that workers were told they had to sign union cards, or were misled into signing them, in order to receive a government relief payment.

Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill. (David Bacon)

Last year, UFW organizers began holding house meetings to let workers know about the new way to get a union contract. Rosa Silva held one of those meetings in her San Joaquin Valley home, inviting friends from a number of companies. They included some from Wonderful Nurseries, where she worked. “Erika [Navarette, the UFW organizer and vice president] told us the history of the union and Cesar Chavez,” she remembers. “She explained the new law, and how negotiating a contract would work. If we put together a proposal we could fight for it, and the union would back us up. Then she passed out union cards, and said if we wanted to join, we could sign up. Everyone did. We even took photos of each other, laughing and holding the card.”

At the end of the meeting, Navarrete told workers about a $600 benefit the union had pushed for with the Biden administration, a payment to farmworker families struggling because of the Covid pandemic. Last year, the US Department of Agriculture established the Farm and Food Worker Relief Grant Program “to distribute $670 million to 14 nonprofit organizations and one Tribal entity [giving] one-time $600 relief payments to eligible farm and food workers.” In addition to the UFW Foundation, other distributors include Catholic Charities, the Cherokee Nation, the National Center for Farmworker Health, and the National Migrant and Seasonal Head Start Association. Workers can qualify for this payment whether or not they support or belong to the UFW.

Navarrete had a computer tablet with the USDA website application, and helped people at Silva’s house who wanted to apply. The new program, she said, was better than earlier relief programs because, unlike them, families didn’t have to provide a Social Security number. That had disqualified many undocumented farmworkers from pandemic aid. The National Agricultural Workers Survey estimates that about half of all farmworkers lack legal immigration status, and the Cooperativa Campesina says that in California it’s over 70 percent. Although undocumented workers pay into the Social Security fund from their wages, the government will not give them Social Security numbers.

United Farm Workers members and supporters march to the capitol building in Sacramento, to demand that Governor Newsom sign a bill providing absentee ballots for farmworkers in union elections. Newsom vetoed the bill the same day. Copyright David Bacon (David Bacon)

The union busting campaign unfolds

On February 23 the UFW handed the cards signed by Wonderful Nurseries workers to the ALRB. The board asked the company for a list of workers, to verify that a majority had signed them. It concluded that 327 Wonderful Nurseries employees who were farmworkers, working in the appropriate period, and who weren’t supervisors or management, had done so—a majority of the its 640 employees.

Three days later, Wonderful hired Raul Calvo, who then met with its human relations managers. Together they practiced a script prepared by company lawyers to use in meetings with the nursery workers. The next day, the meetings began. ALRB staff later investigated the meetings and met with workers who attended. The day before the Visalia hearing began, the ALRB’s general counsel filed charges against Wonderful over illegal activities in those meetings. Foremen stopped work in area after area, the complaint says, and told workers to meet with Calvo and the lawyers. Calvo read from the script, and added his own anti-union messages.

In at least some of those meetings, Calvo asked workers if they had signed union cards— an illegal interrogation. He asked workers to put their names on a list of those who wanted to revoke their signature, another violation. He and other supervisors told workers not to sign the cards, and that the company wanted “to remain free of the union.” Workers who put their names on the list were called individually to the company office, where lawyers and agents wrote out declarations for them to sign.

According to Maria, in the meeting she attended, “Raul asked who had signed for the $600. He had a piece of paper for people to put their names, to revoke their signatures. He said they’d meet with their lawyers to write a statement. I was called in to Ana’s office [a human relations manager], where Raul asked if I’d signed and if it was for $600. Then he wanted me to talk with the LA Times to say good things about the company. I didn’t want to tell lies, so I said no.”

Once the hearing began to challenge the union’s certification, Calvo and other company supervisors began organizing groups of workers and company supporters to travel to Visalia, to demonstrate in front of the ALRB office. Another anti-union rally was held during work time outside the Wonderful office in Wasco. Although workers can’t normally get time off during the work day, Seth Oster, a Wonderful manager, told reporters that no one would be punished for leaving work to rally against the union.

Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill. (David Bacon)

At the same time, the company gave declarations to the board to support its challenge of the certification, in which they say workers claim they were tricked into signing union cards, or told they had to sign in order to get the $600. In the hearing, Wonderful is represented by nine or 10 lawyers, according to UFW attorney Mario Martinez. Their claims have been seconded by the National Council of Agricultural Employers, whose president, Michael Marsh, says the union used the same tactic in New York State, where a card check law has also gone into effect. The grower association is presumably challenging card check laws wherever they appear.

“People began to be very afraid,” Rosa Silva says. “They were told that a judge would give them a paper saying they had to testify against the union.” Maria adds, “They know the company wants them to go [to the rallies]. If they don’t go, people will say they’re on the side of the union. They’re afraid they’ll lose their jobs or won’t have work when the season comes next year.”

Raul Calvo has organized this kind of campaign multiple times before. Following years of wildfires in California’s wine country, he appeared in Sonoma County in 2022 to oppose proposals for worker protections. Calvo organized a committee of pro-grower workers, who testified at hearings in opposition.

At the Apio/Curation Foods vegetable processing facility on the state’s central coast, Calvo was paid more than $2 million over eight years to convince workers not to organize with the United Food and Commercial Workers. After the union was defeated in 2015, Curation Foods was bought by ag giant Taylor Farms for $73 million.

Bringing workers to demonstrate outside ALRB offices to pressure the board was the most public feature of an earlier campaign to get rid of the mandatory mediation section of the labor law. Another big California grower, Gerawan Farming, tried to have the law declared unconstitutional in 2015, in an effort supported by the National Right to Work Committee, the California Fresh Fruit Association and right-wing politicians around anti-tax crusader Grover Norquist. The board charged that forged signatures on anti-union petitions had been turned in by Anthony Raimondo, the then-partner of Wonderful’s lawyer Ronald Barsamian. Workers were bussed to media events in Sacramento to rally against the union in front of TV cameras, expenses paid by growers.

Ultimately the California Supreme Court upheld the law’s validity, but the board yielded to political pressure and in the end the UFW lost its certification. A few years later the company went bankrupt and several thousand workers lost their jobs. “Wonderful is taking a page from the Gerawan playbook,” according to UFW lawyer Martinez. “And the objective is the same—to get rid of the law itself.”

Wonderful is better positioned to mount that challenge than were the Gerawans, who were extreme Republicans in a Democratic state. In the 10 years before 2018, Wonderful spent over $1 billion on the image of its famous brands—Halo mandarins, Fiji water, Pom juice, Justin wines, Teleflora flowers, and Wonderful pistachios.

The Resnicks cultivate California media, support Democrats like Governor Newsom (to whom they contributed at least $220,000), and spend money on high-profile projects in California farmworker towns. The couple gave $25 million to the Wonderful College Prep Academy, a charter school in Delano, and donated $55 million to the Los Angeles County Museum of Art. The new student union building at California State University in Fresno bears their name. “Our company has always believed that success means doing well by doing good,” Stewart Resnick says on the Wonderful website. “We are deeply committed to doing our part to build a better world and inspiring others to do the same.”

But just as Andrew Carnegie built 3,000 libraries in cities across the country, while fighting unions among his steelworkers with Pinkerton detectives, the Resnicks’ paternalism also obscures a history of intense opposition to organizing among its own workers.

As early as 1998, workers at Paramount Farms, a large fruit and nut enterprise owned by the Resnicks, began joining the Laborers Union in its huge Avenal almond packinghouse. The company responded by hiring union busters Mendez and Associates. Using the same kind of captive meetings held at Wonderful this spring, supervisors told workers the company would help them get their signatures on union cards revoked. Two union supporters were fired, and workers voted down the union in a climate of fear. A complaint of illegal tactics was later upheld by the National Labor Relations Board, but the decision was too late and too weak to change anything.

By 2010, Paramount was cultivating 5 million trees on 120,000 acres in Kern County. The company bought the Westside Mutual Water Company, and through it gained control of the Kern Water Bank. Pumping to irrigate its almonds and pistachios then led to a 115-foot drop in the water table in three years. Rob Yraceburu, Wonderful’s current president, is a water bank director. Another director William Phillimore, who today runs Westside, was a Paramount Farms vice president for years.

In 2015, Paramount changed its name and became Wonderful. A year later, Wonderful’s labor contractor, Family Ranch, fired a crew of eight older workers just after Christmas. They’d protested dirty drinking water and company pressure to work faster. The workers filed a complaint, and after two and a half years of appeals, the board concluded that they were fired “because they complained about working conditions.” Chris Schneider, at the time the ALRB regional director prosecuting the case, asks, “What would it have cost the company to settle the case? Far less than what it paid the attorneys for years of appeals. But Wonderful was fundamentally opposed to the idea of workers having any say.”

In 2019. the company announced that it would cut the pay for 1,800 pickers of its Halo brand mandarins by 12 percent. The workers stopped picking for four days, with help from the UFW, and the cut was rescinded. But after the harvest restarted, fear kept workers from taking further steps to join the union.

Marchers in Sacramento at the end of the 22-day march to win the card check bill. (David Bacon)

Will the new law work?

It was AB2183 that provided a way for Wonderful Nurseries’ workers to organize and bring the union in, despite this history. And while growers want to keep the union out, the outcome has been different so far in the first two ranches where the UFW filed petitions. Last fall, DMB Packing Corp was the first company where workers signed cards, and the union asked for certification under AB 2183. The company appealed and its appeal was dismissed by the ALRB, and is now in contract negotiations with the UFW. In January, the union filed a petition for workers at Olive Hill Greenhouses, a small nursery. There, too, the employer is engaging in contract negotiations.

Those results give some hope to Rosa Silva, who says she wants a contract with a grievance procedure because she puts her job at risk to complain about bad conditions. “A few days ago, we were getting stomach problems from the water, and one of us went to human relations to ask them to do something,” she remembers. “They told her the problem was in her head, and that the water is fine. It was brave to complain the first time, but doing it again would get you in a lot of trouble. If we had a union, we could force the company to have good water, and complain without fear.”

Silva is a divorced mother of three, making $16.55 per hour. Although she has a year-round job, “it’s not possible to survive on this wage,” she says. “We pay one bill and put off the next. It hurts to tell my kids I can’t buy them a burrito. Nothing for them. So we have meetings each week, and talk about our problems at work and what we want in our contract. It’s hard. A lot of people are afraid to come, that if the union doesn’t win we’ll get fired. But I think that if the company has all this money for lawyers and consultants, they can raise the wages and make conditions better. We’re just asking for what’s fair.”

The union still has its certification, even while the appeals process drags on. Silva and the other union workers at Wonderful Nurseries face the difficult problem of continuing to organize inside a company pervaded by fear of being fired and obvious hatred for the union. Whether their initial organization can get better water, or oppose the favoritism in hiring and layoffs, or pressure Wonderful into a wage raise will depend in part on their ability to get workers to advocate openly for changing these immediate conditions. Signing cards is only the beginning. Making real changes through their collective action is what will build their union.

But much still depends on the ALRB. The board’s complaint about illegal interrogation and pressure on workers is a powerful tool to open up space for worker organizing. The new law was also written to give the board power to impose a mediator and even a contract. So talking about what people want in that agreement isn’t just a theoretical discussion; putting together workers’ demands is also a basic way to organize.

A lot is at stake in that Visalia hearing room. Whether the board can stop the fear campaign. Whether the union’s certification will be protected. Whether the workers will have a real right to organize and bargain. Most of all, whether the board will stand up for its own law and process in the face of money, media, and political power.

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David Bacon

David Bacon is author of Illegal People—How Globalization Creates Migration and Criminalizes Immigrants (2008) and The Right to Stay Home (2013), both from Beacon Press. His latest book, about the US-Mexico border, More Than a Wall / Mas que un muro, is coming in May 2022 from the Colegio de la Frontera Norte.

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