SACRAMENTO, Calif. — As over 200 union and community supporters gathered at a Nov. 18 town hall forum on the labor situation at Blue Diamond Growers, a panel of elected officials and community representatives found the growers guilty of worker intimidation and refusing a fair and timely election.

The panel members, including a California state senator, a Sacramento City Council member, a professor at Sacramento State University, a minister and representatives of ACORN, Gray Panthers, the Congress of California Seniors, the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement and the Chicano student organization MEChA, agreed to send a joint letter to Blue Diamond calling for a secret ballot election in a neutral location like a church.

They urged both union and company to agree to equal access to the workers with no worker intimidation and community oversight of the election through an impartial committee acceptable to both sides.

Over the last three years, workers at Blue Diamond’s Sacramento almond-processing plant have been trying to get company recognition of their union, International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) Local 17, but have been stymied by company harassment and its insistence on an National Labor Relations Board (NLRB) secret ballot election. Most of the workers are people of color.

Blue Diamond operates the world’s largest almond processing plant and ships almonds all over the world. It has received large subsidies from the city of Sacramento, as well as permission to permanently block off three city streets in order to enlarge its factory.

“Under the NLRB, a secret ballot does not guarantee fairness,” said Dr. Gordon Lafer, political science professor at the University of Oregon. He pointed out that employers have a list of eligible voters, but unions don’t get this until a few weeks before the election. They then must visit the voters at home, while employers have access to them every working day.

While state and federal laws prohibit employers from telling their employees how to vote in NLRB elections, the NLRB doesn’t count this as economic intimidation unless it includes a specific threat, Lafer said.

Even if a specific threat or other violation is proved, “the NLRB is the only area of civil law where there are no meaningful civil penalties at all,” so employers ignore the law with impunity, he added.

Lafer was followed by several Blue Diamond workers reporting harassment, firings, company spying, false accusations and favoritism. Most of the workers had not gotten a raise in many years until the union became involved in 2005.

Seventeen union and community groups publicly pledged their support of the Blue Diamond Almond Workers campaign.