UFW, Wonderful Nurseries clash over union dispute

Allegations of coercion, deceptive tactics escalate between the United Farm Workers and Wonderful Nurseries over union formation, labor practices

(Rigo Moran)
(Rigo Moran)
Darren Fraser
Published April 18, 2024  • 
1:30 pm

KERN COUNTY – In a dispute that revolves around the question of trust, the United Farm Workers (UFW) and Wasco-based Wonderful Nurseries have accused each other of using questionable – possibly illegal – tactics regarding the formation of a union at the largest grapevine nursery in the country.

This conflict involves a murky state law, COVID relief funds and the potential for significant gains for a union, whose membership has dwindled to just a fraction of its peak.

For the UFW, the matter seems settled. Last month, a majority of Wonderful Nurseries employees voted to certify the union as their representative for labor negotiations. According to the UFW, the certification process was fair and reflected the will of the workers.

In an April 2 article, the Times interviewed UFW communications director Antonio De Loera-Brust, who said the union is confident the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) will ultimately side with the UFW amid this conflict.

“We have the facts. We are confident that the certification will ultimately be upheld,” he said. “What is unfortunate is all of this time is essentially being wasted in not getting to start bargaining for a contract.”

This ties back to a situation that occurred on March 27, when about 100 Wonderful Nurseries employees gathered outside the ALRB office in Visalia to protest the March 4 certification – the certification that designated the UFW as the workers’ representative for labor negotiations. 

According to De Loera-Brust, Wonderful Nurseries coerced the workers into protesting, and said the workers were told there would be repercussions if they did not participate.

148 DECLARATIONS AND COVID RELIEF

Seth Oster is the chief corporate affairs officer for Wonderful Nurseries’ parent company, The Wonderful Company, which is owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick. In an interview with the Times that took place after the April 2 article, Oster said everything that UFW has accused the company of doing – coercing, threatening, bullying – has been refuted by the employees via signed declarations.

“This is not Seth (Oster) telling you. These are the farmworkers who told these stories,” Oster said. “They have signed legal declarations that have nothing to do with us. These are their own words signed with their own names at the bottom of them.”

The 148 declarations – printed in English and Spanish – have been redacted to exclude personal information. They reference activities dating back to July 2023 and going forward. All of the declarations were signed on Feb. 29, 2024 or March 1, 2024.

Something of note is that the declarations bring up $600 in federal COVID relief funds for eligible workers. While some workers who signed the declarations felt they were deceived into signing cards that allowed the UFW to represent them at Wonderful Nurseries, others said the UFW told them signing the authorization card was necessary to receive the relief funds.

Some other workers were under the impression they wouldn’t get the funds unless they signed the authorization cards. Others admitted they didn’t understand what they were signing, but felt pressured by UFW and ALRB members to sign them.

Another issue raised in the declarations concerned union dues – if Wonderful Nurseries employees join the union, they have to pay 3% of their salary. Some workers complained that they weren’t informed about this fee or that it wasn’t clearly explained to them.

Ultimately, workers approved the certification by seven votes. The ALRB ruled 40 Wonderful Nurseries employees were ineligible to participate in the union campaign. Of the 640 eligible workers, 327 signed authorization cards.

However, Oster noted the ALRB had the declarations before they certified the vote. He said he was surprised that, despite the fact that the board recognized the declarations were important, they still went ahead and certified the vote.

The Times reached out to the ALRB for comment but did not receive a reply as of press time.

The Times asked Elizabeth Strater, the UFW director of strategic campaigns, for her response to Wonderful Nurseries’ claim that it never did anything to discourage its own workers from unionizing – a claim that she referred to as “nonsense.”

To back up her point, Strater mentioned an unfair labor practice (ULP) complaint the union lodged with the ALRB. This complaint included a union petition update that was distributed by the company to its employees. The update referenced the 148 declarations and stated that the company planned to challenge the ALRB’s regional director’s conclusions. 

Additionally, it mentioned the company’s intention to request an investigation and hearing on the issue.

When asked about other issues, including the company’s statement that: employees signed the declarations of their own volition; that Wonderful Nurseries is not opposed to its employees unionizing; and the company never engaged in coercive or bullying behavior, Strater referred to the ULPs filed with the ALRB.

AB 2183

Assembly Bill (AB) 2183 is the law that made this type of popup union campaign possible. AB 2183 was introduced in 2022. The bill sought to change how workers can vote on unions. Prior to the bill, votes had to be cast in person at a designated polling place. 

In 2021, Gov. Gavin Newsom vetoed a similar bill because it allowed farmworkers to vote by mail or via the card check system. This system permits workers to authorize a union by signing cards off-site, such as what occurred with Wonderful employees.

Newsom said he would also veto AB 2183 because he had concerns regarding the integrity of mail-in ballots. However, after President Biden publicly pressured Newsom to sign the bill and after the UFW staged a 335-mile march from Delano to Sacramento to apply additional pressure, Newsom signed an amended AB 2138 last year. The amended bill dropped the mail-in ballot option and placed a limit on the number of locations that could be petitioned through the card check system.

Under AB 2138, a union does not need to notify the employer it is campaigning to unionize the workers.

If the UFW is successful in unionizing Wonderful Nurseries employees, it will mark a reversal of fortune of sorts for the union. The union was co-founded by Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta in 1962. At its peak, the UFW had nearly 80,000 members. Today, the UFW proper has about 5,000 members. Another 2,000 members belong to the Teamsters, or other unions.

Darren Fraser
Reporter