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McDonald's Accused Of Hanging California Produce Workers Out To Dry

06/23/2015 10:37 am ET | Updated Jun 23, 2015
Justin Sullivan via Getty Images

WASHINGTON -- After impounding the ballots for more than a year, federal officials last week tallied the votes in an acrimonious union election at Taylor Farms Pacific, a California vegetable producer that supplies garnishes to major fast-food companies. According to the preliminary count, the Teamsters narrowly lost the election, with workers voting 168 to 154 against the union.

But the nearly two-year saga at the company's production facilities in Tracy, California, isn't over yet. According to the National Labor Relations Board, 43 of the ballots cast by workers have been challenged, making it possible, if not likely, for the Teamsters to prevail in a final count. What's more, a labor rights watchdog is now accusing McDonald's, a purchaser of Taylor Farms product, of failing to uphold its "supplier code of conduct" in the heated runup to the election.

After launching the union campaign in the fall of 2013, the Teamsters accused Taylor Farms supervisors of intimidating workers and interfering with organizing efforts, as Capital & Main reported last year. The union filed so many so-called unfair labor practice charges -- claims that the employer broke labor law -- that federal officials sat on the ballots as they looked into the union's allegations. Many of those charges were thrown out by officials or withdrawn by the Teamsters, though some are still being investigated. The company denies breaking the law.

Now, the International Labor Rights Forum, a nonprofit that monitors corporate supply chains, has issued a report that supports several of the Teamsters' accusations, alleging the company fired and suspended pro-union workers and cut their hours to stymie the campaign. The report also claims that McDonald's "failed to use its leverage" with Taylor Farms to address the alleged violations, and that it ultimately "caused further damage to the workers" in the way the fast-food giant intervened.

"The ultimate outcome for workers because of McDonald's involvement was worse than if they did nothing and sat there and took the abuse," Abby McGill, International Labor Rights Forum's campaigns director and author of the report, told The Huffington Post.

International Labor Rights Forum receives funding from worker groups and labor unions, and the Teamsters have been a regular donor over the years. According to McGill, the group investigated the allegations at Taylor Farms at the Teamsters' request, though the union did not directly fund the report.

In a statement addressing the report, Alan Applonie, president of Taylor Farms Pacific, said International Labor Rights Forum's "credibility and objectivity clearly is questionable at best," given past donations from the Teamsters. Deeming the union effort a "smear campaign" aimed at "forc[ing] its way" into the Tracy facilities, Applonie said the company has "profound respect for workers' rights," and he blamed the Teamsters for the holdup of the ballot count.

"We hope that the Teamsters will respect the democratic process and outcome of the secret ballot election," Applonie said. "We remain committed to letting our employees choose whether they want union representation through a fair and informed process, and will respect their decisions whatever they may be."

McDonald's did not respond to repeated requests for comment.

McDonald's code of conduct includes a section on "freedom of association" that would cover unionization and collective bargaining. Per the code: "Suppliers shall respect the rights of workers to associate or not to associate with any group, as permitted by and in accordance with all applicable laws and regulations." The code includes a phone number that can be called if a McDonald's supplier is suspected of running afoul of such rights.

In April 2014, a Taylor Farms worker called to lodge a complaint, claiming workers at his Taylor Farms plant were being intimidated by supervisors, according to International Labor Rights Forum's report. The group says the call triggered an audit by a McDonald's contractor called Arche Advisors, a firm that specializes in what's known as corporate social responsibility, a form of corporate self-monitoring meant to uphold labor, environmental and other standards.

International Labor Rights Forum holds a low opinion of the audit commissioned by McDonald's.

"Of the nearly 30 workers ILRF spoke with directly, the only one that had any contact with the auditor was the worker who made the original complaint," the report states. "No worker observed or was engaged in any attempt by Taylor Farms to correct violations of the McDonald’s Supplier Code of Conduct."

What's more, International Labor Rights Forum claims that McDonald's then pulled or scaled back its business with Taylor Farms, feeding into a narrative allegedly spun by management that unionization would lead to job loss. The group alleges that dozens of workers were laid off in December, and that flyers were passed around saying "thanks for taking away McDonald's," referencing the Teamsters.

"Thus, rather than aiding in correction of the violation of McDonald’s Supplier Code, the audit became a tool management used to reinforce to the workforce that if they complain about legal violations or attempt to exercise their associational rights, they will face dismissal," the report says.

International Labor Rights Forum asserts that the worker who called McDonald's and complained about Taylor Farms ended up losing his job. "McDonald's and Arche Advisors have an obligation to protect workers who speak out, otherwise the audit system established will simply have a chilling effect," the report reads.

Arche Advisors did not respond to a request for comment.

International Labor Rights Forum and other labor rights watchdogs are skeptical of corporate social responsibility programs. Such codes are voluntary by nature, and the audits they prompt typically come without any legal teeth to assure that reforms are made when abuses are revealed. In some cases, critics say, the programs serve more to protect companies than to protect workers, burnishing brand images while offering little commitment to improving working conditions.

"McDonald's put this CSR supplier code of conduct in place in order to heighten their image as a company, but when the rubber hit the road, and they were expected to stand by that, they ran away instead," McGill said.

Elsewhere in the report, the group says that workers reported sitting through one to five so-called "captive-audience meetings" -- that is, confabs at work in which employers or their consultants deliver an anti-union message. According to International Labor Rights Forum, workers were told that prices would increase if workers unionized, that customers would drop their contracts, and that the company would have to close or relocate its facilities.

"Workers reported that a 50-inch TV was installed in the cafeteria and anti-union videos were played at loud volume during break times," the report states.

An official with the labor board said the agency is investigating the disputed ballots in the election, but couldn't say when a final vote might be ratified.

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