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The peach farmer vs the labor union: Gerawan hearing finally finishes

After nearly six months of testimony, hearings in California on alleged unfair labor practices at America's biggest peach grower finally closed on Thursday—and sparks flew all the way to the end of the hearing and beyond.

Source: Gerawan Farming

As CNBC first reported in 2013, Gerawan Farming was surprised when the United Farm Workers (UFW) union resurfaced in 2012—after a 20-year absence—to demand negotiations on a labor contract for more than 3,000 farm workers at one of the world's largest fruit growers.

The hearings in the dispute started in September 2014 before Mark Soble, an administrative law judge with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). More than 130 witnesses were called over 105 days in Fresno, California, making it the longest ag labor hearing in state history. A decision is expected later this year.

Dan Gerawan
Scott Smith | AP
Dan Gerawan

The ALRB's general counsel attorneys, who are responsible for investigating and prosecuting the case, have charged that Gerawan carried out unfair labor practices, engaged in bad-faith bargaining, and assisted and supported workers in an effort to decertify the union.

"I can't guarantee what the outcome will be, but we're confident the truth will come to light at the end of these proceedings, and that the workers will soon enjoy the benefits of the collective bargaining agreement that's already been ordered by the state between the UFW and Gerawan," said UFW lead attorney Edgar Aguilasocho in an interview after the hearing.

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Gerawan denies the allegations. Dan Gerawan, president of Gerawan Farming, said on Thursday that he's "hopeful that there still could be justice and that our employees could be given a choice before a so-called contract is forced on them. We have to remember that this is a union that abandoned the employees 20 years ago. And the notion that they could come back and force them into a contract without even giving them a choice is really sort of frightening."

During Thursday's hearing, ALRB Assistant General Counsel Arcelia Hurtado tried to introduce new documents into the record that she claimed undermined Dan Gerawan's prior testimony. She also tried to introduce new documents to show contradictions in the testimony of Gerawan employee Silvia Lopez, who led the decertification effort against the UFW.

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Soble, the judge presiding over the case, was critical of Hurtado for trying to submit new documents into the record on the last day of the scheduled hearings. "Otherwise, you could wheel in 10 wheelbarrows of new things," the judge said.

Hurtado complained about illegible time cards for employees and sought to get new ones for the record, prompting Gerawan Farming attorney Ron Barsamian to respond: "We're not going to stop doing payroll to do it."

ALRB administrative law judge Mark Soble at Thursday's hearing in Fresno, California
Source: Jeff Daniels
ALRB administrative law judge Mark Soble at Thursday's hearing in Fresno, California

Speaking outside Thursday's hearing, Barsamian accused the ALRB General Counsel staff of being unprepared for the case and added that "they haven't proved anything. As you can see from our discussions this morning they are still talking about the readability of records that were provided (to) them way back in January 2014. And they are only now saying they can't read them."

Barsamian also was critical of ALRB General Counsel attorneys for the manner in which they questioned farmworkers during the hearings, including charging they were "trying to trick them" on several occasions.

Hurtado was not available for an interview.

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Meanwhile, a case pending in the California Court of Appeals could help Gerawan. It involves the constitutionality of California laws that allow contracts to be created under mandatory mediation and implemented by the state. Oral arguments on the state appellate case are scheduled for April 14.

Separately, legislation sponsored by California Assemblyman Jim Patterson (R-Fresno) would give workers new authority to ratify a contract and reject a union deal. Assembly Bill 1389 also would decertify a union if it goes away or fail to represent workers for at last three years.