UFW, Wonderful Nurseries meet for first hearing, address allegations of farmworkers being tricked into unionizing

BAKERSFIELD, Calif. (KGET) — “Listen to our voices, do not ignore us,” farmworkers chanted in Spanish, as they protested outside the Marriott Hotel on Truxtun Avenue Tuesday morning.

For weeks now, those same demands have rung through Visalia, Wasco and now Bakersfield.

“We don’t want a union,” these workers also said loudly and clearly.

Workers took to the streets as a hearing began in the case of Wonderful Nurseries versus United Farm Workers.

Day 1 of the hearing was to discuss the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board’s (ALRB) certification of UFW as the Wonderful workers’ union.

These farm workers with Wonderful Nurseries claim they were tricked into unionizing with UFW and want out.

“We never knew that we were going to be part of a union,” said Ana Lopez, who said she’s been with the company for six years.

Farmworkers with Wonderful Nurseries accuse United Farm Workers of tricking them into unionizing.

“It’s wrong what they did to us, honestly, it’s wrong,” said Jose Manuel Sanches Navarro, who said he’s been with Wonderful for nearly seven years.

He added, “it’s not fair,” and that UFW “lied” to him.

“Oh, just sign here, you’ll get your $600,” the worker recalled his conversation with UFW.

He and many others allege the UFW approached them offering $600 in COVID-19 relief funds, part of the U.S. Department of Agriculture’s federal program for farm and food workers.

But, they said, there was a catch — they said they unknowingly signed union authorization cards as part of the process.

“We want our signatures to be revoked,” said Ana Lopez. “And what Erika Navarrete did to us is a fraud. She shouldn’t have done that to us.”

Lopez blames Erika Navarrete, UFW’s vice president.

“We specifically asked her is this going to be part of a union if we sign this, and she said no, this is only for my supervisor and myself,” Lopez recalled.

Lopez also expressed frustrations, saying although she’s fluent in English, she was tricked. Many of Lopez’s colleagues do not understand English.

But in a Spanish interview with 17 News and Telemundo Bakersfield, Navarrete responded, “It’s a lie. It’s a complete lie, and they’re being manipulated by the company Wonderful Nurseries.”

UFW, on the other hand, has maintained they fairly acquired workers’ signatures to gain the right to represent them. The union has also stated the workers participating in protests are being paid and/or coerced by Wonderful Nurseries to do so.

“Oh no, of course not,” Lopez said as she denied the accusations with a chuckle. “Where’s the money? Where’s the money, I want to see it too.”

Her colleague Jose Manuel Sanches Navarro added, “No pay, no pay, nothing. It’s on our own.”

These workers have repeated that they’re willingly leaving work, unpaid, to protest. Wonderful Nurseries has previously told 17 News workers would not be punished.

Lopez also noted workers have protested unsuccessfully at the ALRB’s Visalia location in an attempt to get their voices heard.

But this isn’t the UFW’s first rodeo with such accusations from workers.

In 2023, the union faced very similar finger pointing from farmworkers in New York.

The National Council of Agricultural Employers (NCAE), a “national association focusing on
agricultural labor issues from the employer’s viewpoint,” has reached out to the USDA requesting a federal investigation into the UFW’s practices, when it comes to distributing the pandemic relief funds.

The ALRB has also filed a complaint against Wonderful Nurseries for potentially violating labor practices by encouraging workers to revoke their signatures authorizing unionization.

The NCAE President and CEO Michael Marsh told 17 News a federal investigation into the New York case is pending. He said the USDA responded additional training would be conducted “to prevent this type of abuse.”

He said he’s yet to hear back about the allegations in California and added no strings should be attached to workers receiving the funds they’re entitled to.

In a statement to 17 News, a spokesperson for the USDA stated in part, “USDA’s Agricultural Marketing Service (AMS) has been notified of the issue. AMS is the agency administering this grant program and is well-positioned to evaluate any allegations or compliance concerns and take appropriate action, including referral to the Office of Inspector General, if necessary. USDA stands by the Farm and Food Worker Relief program as an important mechanism for providing financial relief to farm and food workers who incurred expenses preparing for, preventing exposure to, and responding to the COVID-19 pandemic.”

Both New York and California have recently changed the requirements for union authorization. Rather than the previous “secret ballot” process, workers can now sign a card, even off work property. This is called a card check.

If a majority of employees sign, all become part of the union.

Tuesday was also the 31st anniversary of the death of farmworker labor icon Cesar Chavez. Yet the UFW, which Chavez cofounded, continues to face allegations it tricked the very workers it was designed to protect.

And, once an employee is no longer with Wonderful, they are also no longer with the union, according to Navarrete, UFW vice president.

A contract with UFW means a portion — likely 3% — of workers’ paychecks would go to the union.

“The ALRB did not listen to us, that’s why we’re protesting today,” Lopez explained. “We told them what was going on. We told them everything. And they still decided to go ahead and have the union unionize us.”

But the ALRB told 17 News by California law, they must immediately certify a unionization if majority worker support is shown, as the UFW did.

The hearing has been adjourned until Thursday.

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