California Board Rules Union Misled Workers, Orders Refunds

united-farm-workersThe United Farm Workers has become nearly a shell organization since peaking about three decades ago. A four-part series published in the Los Angeles Times in January 2006 provided a less than flattering look at a labor organization obsessed with parlaying the memory of its founder, Cesar Chavez, into an efficient generator of government and other grants, the attraction of dues-paying members seemingly an afterthought. The union, based in Keene, Calif. (along the Bakersfield Tehachapi Highway), lately has stepped up its organizing, possibly as a response to the expose and also to federal and state court rulings. But it also has been less than transparent with the workers it has sought to organize. That was the conclusion of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board this past February. The five-member board ruled that the union failed to inform mushroom pickers of their right to withhold the portion of their dues that support political activity, and worse, threatened workers who did withhold their dues, falsely telling them that all workers had to pay in full or the grower would have to fire them.


The case began when two workers at the Ventura-based California Mushroom Farm Inc., formerly known as Pictsweet Mushroom Farms, filed a complaint with the labor board on behalf of some 400 fellow workers. Represented by the Springfield, Va.-based National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, the workers asserted that California law and various U.S. Supreme Court rulings clearly state that union members have a right to withhold the portion of their dues going for political or educational purposes that members find objectionable. California voters in November 2005 defeated a ballot initiative, Proposition 75, backed by Gov. Arnold Schwarzenegger, that would have required public-employee unions to obtain annual written permission from members before spending dues on activity beyond collective bargaining, contract administration and grievance adjustment. But the fight did not end there. The National Right to Work Foundation and other legal groups have continued to mount challenges to the practices of individual unions.  

The plaintiffs won. The California Agricultural Labor Relations Board ordered the union to better inform members of their rights, and to refund the portion of the dues paid under protest, which in this case amounted to about 7 percent to 10 percent of the total. Union dues comprise about 2 percent of the mushroom workers’ pay range of $8.40-$12 an hour. The union insists that it did not withhold key information from rank-and-file members. “We make every effort to let workers know of their rights and we’ve learned from this how to do that better,” said UFW spokeswoman Alisha Rosas. But Stefan Gleason, vice president of the National Right to Work Legal Defense Foundation, thinks the case was a real breakthrough. The union’s actions, he said, were “standard operating procedures.” Hopefully, he said, the union “will start respecting the legal rights of workers, especially those who don’t want much to do with them.” (Los Angeles Times, 2/23/07).