Last August, roughly 200 Latino workers at a Marquez Brothers cheese production plant in Hanford (Kings County) voted to join Teamsters Local 517. Marquez Brothers employees make on average $10/hour while Teamsters in nearby cheese plants average $21/hour. The Marquez workers want equal pay for equal work.
Last week, three Assemblymembers traveled to Hanford to meet with Marquez Brothers workers and demonstrate their commitment for California Latinos to realize the American Dream. Driving over eight hours to get there, Roger Hernandez, Chair of the Assembly Committee on Labor Employment; V. Manny Perez, Vice Chair of California Latino Legislative Caucus, and Lorena Gonzalez of San Diego met firsthand with a standing-room only crowd of Marquez workers. They carried a letter signed by fourteen members of the Latino Legislative Caucus and the Assembly and Senate Labor committees expressing their strong support for the Marquez workers.
Marquez Brothers is one of the largest distributors of dairy products serving the Latino community in North America. After their workers organized a union, the company responded by bringing in Littler Mendelson, a law firm that touts its ability to advise clients on “union avoidance” and “maintaining a union-free workplace.” One strategy Littler excels in involves a classic union-busting strategy: delay and decertify. The moment the National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) certifies a new union in a workplace the clock starts ticking. The workers have one year to get a first contract and the company delays that at all costs, because after one year a minority of workers can file a petition to decertify the union. And that’s what happened at Marquez. In fact, Marquez Brothers used the petition as a legal justification to withdraw union recognition from the workers.
Not to be beaten, a majority of the Marquez workers responded by signing new union authorization cards and asking the NLRB for a new election. The election was scheduled for October 4th. But with the government shutdown, the NLRB postponed the election.
In the year since they first organized, Marquez workers have faced a constant campaign of harassment and intimidation. In March, workers traveled to Sacramento to testify at a legislative hearing on employer intimidation, only to be followed by company management and Littler attorneys. One of the workers was fired shortly after the hearing. She was one of twenty union supporters fired since they organized. Others have quit in the face of a constant barrage of harassment. The NLRB has sided with the company in almost every case, despite a record of over 10 years of unfair labor practice charges against the company in multiple locations. Yet the brave workers fight on for dignity and respect.
This whole episode reflects the complete breakdown in federal laws originally designed to encourage collective bargaining. But California has always been at the forefront in enacting state laws that protect and affirm the rights of workers to organize. In 1975, Governor Brown (then in his first term) signed the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act establishing the right for farmworkers to collectively bargain, as they were excluded under federal labor laws. This groundbreaking legislation included mandatory mediation in the event a first contract could not be reached. This provision would guarantee Marquez Brothers workers a fair first contract if it existed under federal law.
This year, the California legislature continued it’s proud tradition of being on the cutting edge of labor law by passing three bills that protect workers from retaliation when they speak out about their wages and working conditions.
- AB 263 (Hernández) will strengthen protections for immigrant workers by prohibiting immigration-related retaliation and holding employers
- accountable when they exploit this vulnerable workforce.
- AB 524 (Mullin) will clarify that an employer threatening to expose a worker’s immigration status is extortion and cannot be tolerated.
- SB 666 (Steinberg) will strengthen underlying retaliation law to make sure that immigrant workers – and all workers – are protected.
Governor Brown, building upon his legacy as a champion for worker-friendly legislation, signed AB 524 and SB 666 into law. AB 263 awaits his signature.