Foster Farms violated federal rules, labor relations board says

WASHINGTON — Foster Farms unfairly sought to deter labor organizers at its Porterville, Calif., plant by promising workers improved benefits, a National Labor Relations Board judge has concluded.

The poultry company's maneuvers in 2007 violated federal rules governing corporate behavior during union certification elections, Administrative Law Judge Gerald A. Wacknov ruled. The judge called the improved benefits "an effort to diminish" employee support for the proposed union.

"(Foster Farms) wanted employees to reflect favorably upon their benefits so they would not think they needed a union or another employer," Wacknov concluded.

Wacknov's ruling, quietly issued March 9, directs Foster Farms not to repeat its actions. As is typical, the company has been directed to publicly post documents about the case so that employees can learn more.

The decision also clears one roadblock to another union election at the Foster Farms Porterville facility.

An authorized Foster Farms spokesman could not be reached to comment Wednesday.

Based in Livingston, and family owned, Foster Farms is the largest poultry company in the West. The Porterville facility opened in 1999, and each week cranks out more than 1 million pounds of various poultry products such as breaded nuggets and pizza toppings.

The labor violation occurred during the run-up to a December 2007 union certification election. Although most of Foster Farms' 12,000 employees throughout California are represented by various unions, the roughly 400 Porterville plant workers are not.

In the initial 2007 election, employees at the Porterville plant overwhelmingly rejected affiliation with the United Food and Commercial Workers. Union officials then filed complaints with the National Labor Relations Board.

The labor board in August 2008 subsequently faulted Foster Farms for not translating portions of a sample ballot into both Spanish and Laotian. The board ordered a new election.

The new union election has not yet been scheduled, in part to await Wacknov's latest decision.

The company's stated policy is to give non-unionized workers similar benefits packages as those provided unionized workers, once the individual facility has been running profitably for several years.

Timothy Walsh, Foster Farms' senior vice president for human relations, said he first became aware in January 2009 that the Porterville benefits fell below those offered in other facilities. The new vacation and sick leave policies were announced to workers one month later.

Plant managers also told workers in meetings and with bilingual pamphlets that they would have better wages and benefits by remaining non-union, according to testimony taken during a two-day hearing conducted in Porterville in November. Wacknov concluded the company wanted employees to associate the better benefits with staying union-free, rather than simply being a matter of standard company policy.

"By its omission of the true reason, and its emphasis of an expedient or contrived reason, the (company) intentionally misled it employees," Wacknov stated.