NLRB says ‘nuts’ to Blue Diamond

Vote to set union election now in hands of workers, organizers

Union organizer Agustin Ramirez says workers need more time before holding an election.

Union organizer Agustin Ramirez says workers need more time before holding an election.

Photo By Larry Dalton

While the battle over unionizing workers at Blue Diamond Growers has created a tense working environment at the Sacramento facility, supporters of the unionization drive won a key victory June 8 that will allow them to dictate the timing of when to force a vote to organize.

Sacramento City Councilman Kevin McCarty, along with several other council members, signed a letter supporting the employees’ right to organize.

“This company has a long history in Sacramento and was given very beneficial treatment by the city and the county,” McCarty said. “I think they have a moral responsibility to make sure they bargain in good faith.”

After eyeing relocation to another city in 1995, the company was awarded a $21 million funding package from local, regional, state and utility agencies.

Sacramento Assemblyman Dave Jones also offered support to employees.

“There’s a lot of community support for workers,” Jones told SN&R. “The community’s made a big investment in Blue Diamond, and I think it’s not unreasonable for workers to have an opportunity to unionize there.”

Since last fall, when the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) teamed up with workers at the world’s biggest almond plant to explore unionization, management at Blue Diamond and workers—many of whom complained of a lack of regular raises and a hostile work environment—have been engaged in a delicate game of moves and countermoves. With approximately 700 workers at full capacity between seasonal layoffs, Blue Diamond is the world’s eminent producer of almonds. Several employees contacted by SN&R for this story say the company has passed out two-dozen fliers in recent months warning employees of the dangers of letting unions into the equation.

Blue Diamond filed an election petition with the National Labor Relations Board’s (NLRB’s) Region 20 San Francisco office April 28, in response to an April 15 picketing of the plant by workers that lasted two hours. The company believed the picket was an action to demand union recognition. The ILWU countered, filing papers with an official disclaimer citing no current interest in representing employees at Blue Diamond and also stating that they would not picket, file for an election or demand employee recognition for six months.

The decision of when to force an election to vote on organizing is contingent upon timing and support. Thirty percent of employees must vote in favor of forcing a union election, which then would require a majority of votes to establish a union as the bargaining unit of employees. Currently, the ILWU does not want that to happen, said organizer Agustin Ramirez, because they don’t have the numbers yet to successfully obtain that majority. So far, 58 workers have signed their names on a letter declaring their intent to organize, and those people are working to convert others.

“We’ve been having other meetings in which other groups and workers have come. We continue to grow slowly, but we grow one by one by five by 10,” said Ramirez, of ILWU 17 in West Sacramento. “Anybody that comes into the union right now, they have gone through all the company’s literature and campaign [against us], and they don’t believe it. We’re very confident that this is going to grow.”

The regional NLRB initially dismissed Blue Diamond’s claims May 9.

“Blue Diamond does not believe that the NLRB’s decision gave its employees an opportunity to voice their opinion about the ILWU,” said the company in a statement. The company declined further comment on this story.

Blue Diamond appealed to NLRB’s national office in Washington, D.C., but on June 8 that board dismissed Blue Diamond’s appeal on a 3-2 vote—two of those majority votes came from appointees of President George W. Bush.

The upshot, says Ramirez, is that Blue Diamond has no means to force an election before workers and the union feel they can win one. If a union vote was approved and passed, Blue Diamond would have to negotiate with a workforce that has considerable enmity built up—numerous employees have worked there for 20 years or more and say they’ve received sporadic raises, at best, and many make less than $13 an hour despite having worked there for more than two decades.

“If workers feel that they need more time to give themselves their best shot, they will do that,” Ramirez said. “Some of them have been there 35 years. The facility’s not going anywhere.”