Deukmejian tries to rein in farm labor board

The leadership at the United Farm Workers union calls it a case of the fox guarding the hen house. For California growers, on the other hand, the appointment of a conservative Republican to a key position on the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) represents a more balanced approach to resolving disputes between farmers and those who work their fields.

California has had a long history of poor farm labor relations, and the early 1970s saw renewed violence in the fields. In 1975, Democratic Gov. Edmund G. Brown Jr. - who had allied himself politically with the UFW's Cesar Chavez - signed the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The act established the ALRB to arbitrate labor disputes between growers and their workers and to enforce fair labor practices.

The law brought peace to the fields, but growers say they have felt from the beginning that Governor Brown's appointments to the board were consistently biased in favor of labor. They say that during Brown's tenure, they never got a fair shake from the nation's first and only farm labor board.

So when the state elected conservative Republican Gov. George Deukmejian, who had been humming the growers' tune throughout his campaign, a collective sigh of relief arose in agribusiness circles. Says George Lindeman, a prominent grower in Los Banos, Calif., ''We've come out of an era of - I think - extreme oppression for agriculture.''

Governor Deukmejian is aggressively trying to tip the political balance more toward agribusiness. Although he is stuck with a Brown-appointed majority on the ALRB throughout his term, Deukmejian has appointed Republican compatriot David Stirling to be the ALRB's general counsel.

The general counsel plays a vital role: He or she chooses when to issue complaints of unfair labor practices. The board then rules on the complaints after hearings. So, in effect, Mr. Stirling has his hand on the spigot, deciding what gets through to the board and what won't. Stirling is expected to issue far fewer complaints than did former general counsels.

The general counsel's authority over the agency's operations has always been ambiguous, but it has never been as lively an issue as it is now. And unless the board and the general counsel come to terms over his role before July 1, the governor has warned he plans to cut the ALRB out of the state budget - virtually nullifying the state's farm labor act.

The ALRB isn't likely to disappear from the budget. Jorge Carrillo, the board member handling talks with Stirling, says he is optimistic that they will come to an agreement soon.

''We've never had a general counsel that came in and tried to take control in such an aggressive way,'' says Bill Camp, a spokesman for the board. But in a letter to the board chairman, Albert Song, Deukmejian decried what he called the board's usurpation of the powers of the general counsel.

Says Paul Chavez, legislative director for the UFW: ''We see this as a portent of what's to come in the next four years. It's going to be tough.''

''A more evenhanded general counsel (like Stirling) can help balance things out with what he chooses to pursue,'' says Michael Stuart, vice-president of Western Growers Association.

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