The California dairy industry has a long history with organized labor, and this history has seldom been told. It started in Southern California, when the dairy industry flourished in areas like Chino. Many of these Southern California dairies had contracts with Local No. 17 of the Christian Labor Association (CLA), a union that operated outside of the mainstream union coalition, the AFL-CIO.
Most Southern California dairies that had union contracts reported cooperative and productive relationships with the CLA, and there was very little strife. Indeed, virtually all of the union activity in the California dairy industry occurred entirely off of the radar, due to the unusual tactics of the CLA, and the dairy industry’s willingness to cooperate with them. Unlike unions like the United Farm Workers (UFW), who fought bitter campaigns against growers to win representation elections. Instead, the CLA approached farmers directly and asked them to negotiate without an election, a process known as “voluntary recognition.”
California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) makes voluntary recognition illegal, and makes elections mandatory. But no one noticed that the CLA illegally gained recognition all across Southern California, because dairy farmers will willing to recognize and sign contracts with a union that seemed reasonable to work with. CLA established a master contract that set wages within a recognized scale, and provided pension and medical benefits. But after peaking in the 1980s, rising land values led to a decline in the Chino dairies. By the mid-2000s, almost all had sold out to developers. Many moved north to the San Joaquin Valley, but in most cases, the union did not follow them. In the early 2000s, the union reared its head as its pension trust sued a large number of dairy families around the country for “withdrawal liability,” a participating employer’s share of a pension shortfall.
The dairy producers in the San Joaquin Valley ran into a whole different kind of union issue. While the UFW had organized a few dairies, the farmworker union had never taken much interest in dairy. In the early 2000s, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1096, mostly a food processing union out of Salinas, began to organize Valley dairies, won some elections, and gained some contracts. After a merger with a number of Northern California grocery worker unions, the newly-minted UFCW Local 5 ramped up the intensity of its organizing, with the goal of establishing an industry wide master contract.
But the union found dairy a difficult nut to crack, as this writer and others helped farmers and workers push back against the organizing. The situation turned at a mid-size dairy in Stanislaus County, where the union’s arrogance and dishonesty backfired, and the workers turned on them. Approximately 18 months after an overwhelming election victory, the union did not even show up to see the decertification election that removed them from the farm. The dairy even won a discrimination case by showing that it was the union, not the dairy, who had discriminated! It was a disaster for the union.
That dairy shared its workers with other farms when the union tried to organize, so everywhere the union showed up, they were confronted with workers who told them the story of a union that deceived dairy workers in Stanislaus County, promised them the moon, and cost them their jobs. The union lost credibility with dairy workers across the industry, and slunk back to the salad plants of Salinas. The California dairy industry remains essentially duty free today. Today, there is active union organizing against dairies in the Pacific Northwest, but there is also a template for victory, and a lasting peace where workers and farmers are free from the tyranny of union oppression.