Slim Pickings

Members of United Farm Workers protested over unpaid wages outside the Salinas office of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board in February.

A major grower of raspberries in Watsonville is shutting down after losing a multi-year legal battle against the union representing its workers. The closure of Premiere Raspberries will mean the layoff of 334 employees, who are members of United Farm Workers.

The last day of business will be March 31, which coincides with the state holiday marking the birthday of Cesar Chavez, the community organizer who co-founded the UFW in the 1960s.

His activism led to the passage of a state law in 1975 recognizing the right of farmworkers to bargain collectively. It was the first law of its kind in U.S. history. Still, today, only a tiny fraction of U.S. farmworkers are unionized.

In 2017, the workers of Premiere Raspberry voted to join the UFW, marking an important victory for the union.

“Elections to unionize a new agricultural worksite are very rare,” says Michel March, an attorney with the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. “It happens maybe once a year.”

The company refused to negotiate with the UFW even after being ordered to do so by the ALRB. The union proposed a contract that included wage increases and labor protections. Without a counter-proposal from Premiere, the ALRB approved the union contract, making the company legally liable for the higher wages.

Company representatives did not respond to request for comment.

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Premiere Raspberries didn’t pay, opting to challenge the entire unionization effort in court. But the courts ultimately ruled against the company. In January, the California Supreme Court declined to hear the case, making the appellate rulings against Premiere final.

“The appeals from Premiere are meritless,” Marsh says. “I knew all along they were never going to win these appeals. They took these appeals to drag this process out.” The company owes “potentially millions of dollars” to its workers, he adds.

Shortly after its defeat at the Supreme Court, Premiere Raspberries announced to employees and to the state Employment Development Department that the company would be going out of business at the end of the season, on April 1.

“The timing and circumstances of Premiere’s announcement are suspicious,” the ALRB said in an administrative order on March 6. The order also warned the company about trying to subvert the state’s decision: “The alter ego doctrine may apply if it appears or is discovered Premiere has closed down only to reopen or reappear in a ‘disguised’ form.” Under that doctrine, an alter ego company would still be liable for back-pay obligations and the owner could face personal liability.

“What our office saw is a great deal of frustration among workers following their victorious elections,” Marsh says. “They assumed conditions and wages would improve. Instead, the company launched a war of attrition against the union and refused to negotiate at every turn. This has been a strategy for breaking unions for decades.”

UFW organizer Lauro Barajas says the union will continue the fight. “When Cesar was alive, they said the union will disappear after he dies. They kept predicting we would die and we did not. We will not give up on this issue.”

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Asaf Shalev is a staff writer at the Monterey County Weekly. He covers higher education, the military, the environment, public lands and the geographic areas of Seaside, Monterey, Sand City, Big Sur and Carmel Valley.

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