Farmworker wants ALRB member disqualified from Gerawan-UFW dispute

The farmworker at the center of a long-running, three-headed legal battle involving Reedley fruit-growing giant Gerawan Farming, the United Farm Workers and the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board wants one of the labor board members disqualified from the subject, accusing her of “a blatant predisposition” toward the union and “disregard for the ethical rules.”

Silvia Lopez is among the Gerawan employees who in 2012 petitioned for an election to decertify the UFW from its representation of the company’s workers. In a petition filed with the ALRB this month, Lopez and her attorneys are demanding that the board disqualify member Genevieve Shiroma from taking part in any decisions on more than 20 allegations of unfair labor practices against the farming company. Fresno attorney Anthony Raimondo, representing Lopez, said Lopez “has been denied due process and a fair hearing” by ALRB misconduct in efforts to have workers’ ballots counted from a November 2013 election to decertify the union.

The ALRB not only oversees farmworkers’ elections for labor representation, but also investigates and prosecutes employees’ and unions’ allegations of unfair labor practices against farm employers. The agency’s administrative law judges hear the cases and render a recommendation to the three-member board, which renders a final decision. The board’s decisions can then be appealed to state’s courts of appeal.

Shiroma was initially appointed to the ALRB as its chairperson in 1999 by Gov. Gray Davis; she was reappointed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger in 2006, and by Gov. Jerry Brown in 2011 and again earlier this month. She was also named the board’s chairperson from mid-2011 to early 2014.

Shiroma’s career is so inexorably linked to the political goals of the union that she cannot possibly render a fair and objective decision.

Anthony Raimondo, attorney for Silvia Lopez

Through her attorneys, Lopez asserts that she “is unable to achieve a fair and impartial hearing” with Shiroma on the board because “Shiroma’s career is so inexorably linked to the political goals of the union that she cannot possibly render a fair and objective decision.” Lopez’s petition alleges that during a political campaign for a seat on the Sacramento Municipal Utilities District board, Shiroma hired a campaign consultant who also is a registered lobbyist for the UFW, creating a “political entanglement (that) is more than coincidental.”

The Bee was unable to reach Shiroma on Wednesday to respond to the allegations by Lopez and her attorney. ALRB acting executive secretary Paul Starkey said the board does not comment on pending matters such as the Lopez petition.

Accusations of bias are nothing new in the dispute. Gerawan and its supporters last year leveled accusations that the ALRB general counsel’s office was tainted with a pro-union agenda because they said attorneys involved in investigating and prosecuting complaints against the company had close ties or allegiance to the UFW.

The UFW won a representation election at Gerawan Farming in 1992, but the union and the company never reached a contract agreement. In 2012, the UFW reasserted its right to represent the workers. Some workers, including Lopez, petitioned the labor board to hold a decertification election. The first petition was rejected by the ALRB’s Visalia regional director on the basis that signatures were invalid. A second petition was also rejected, but the board overruled the regional director, ordering the election to be held but impounding the results while allegations of unfair labor practices were sorted out. The election was held in November 2013, but the results were never counted.

Last fall, an administrative law judge for the ALRB recommended that the election be set aside, citing unlawful interference by the farming company in the election process. That decision ultimately will be heard by the labor board.

Also in 2013, the UFW invoked provisions in California farm labor law that allows the labor board to impose mandatory mediation when unions and farm employers cannot reach agreement on a contract. In November 2013, the labor board finalized the terms of a mandatory mediated contract. Gerawan took the labor board to court, and the 5th District Court of Appeal last spring threw out the contract, ruling that mandatory mediation law was unconstitutional. The ALRB and UFW have appealed that decision to the California Supreme Court.

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