March 10, 2000

UFW could win right to represent workers

By John A. Lehr
Ventura County Star writer

Wednesday March 8, 2000 - In a stunning turn of fortune, the United Farm Workers could be on the verge of winning the right to represent Ventura County employees of the state's largest strawberry grower despite losing an election at the company's farms last spring.

Local workers at Coastal Berry Co. should be represented by a separate bargaining unit than its employees in the Watsonville area, according to a decision by Judge Thomas Sobel made available Tuesday. That's significant because, while the UFW lost a statewide runoff election at Coastal in June, it was the union of choice among workers who voted in Ventura County.

If the Agricultural Labor Relations Board agrees with the judge at a future hearing, the UFW would represent local Coastal workers in labor negotiations. The ALRB would still have to sort through dozens of election objections filed by the UFW to decide whether the UFW's rival, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee, can represent workers in the Watsonville area.

"The workers in Ventura County E want the UFW, so they should have what they voted for," UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said.

The UFW has made the battle to represent Coastal workers the cornerstone of its four-year effort to organize the state's 20,000 strawberry workers. But organizing Coastal has proved to be a frustrating task for the UFW, especially with the success of the less-organized committee.

The UFW appeared to have suffered a significant loss last year. Employees at Coastal farms in Ventura County voted 321 to 277 in favor of the UFW during the June runoff. Workers near Coastal's headquarters in Watsonville chose the committee by a vote of 448 to 295. That gave the committee an overall victory with 725 votes compared with 616 for the UFW.

The UFW immediately challenged the election on numerous grounds, including the composition of the statewide bargaining unit. While the UFW initially asked for a statewide bargaining unit, its objections said the Oxnard and Watsonville workers should be represented separately. The judge agreed.

The ruling didn't surprise Rob Roy, who represents local farmers as president of the Ventura County Agricultural Association.

"We had been anticipating all along the UFW would be trying to get through the back door what they couldn't get through the front door," Roy said.

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