California Fruit Growers Win One Against UFW

           FRESNO, Calif. (CN) – California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board illegally forced a giant fruit farm to mediate a labor contract with the United Farm Workers union, a state appeals court ruled.
     The state’s “Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation” process, which allows a mediator to impose a binding contract on farm companies and agricultural unions when the negotiation process breaks down, is unconstitutional, the 5th District Court of Appeal ruled Thursday.
     Gerawan Farming, a tree fruit and grape grower that runs a 12,000-acre operation with more than 5,000 employees in Fresno and Madera counties, has been locked in a standoff with the United Farm Workers for more than two years over who will represent nearly 3,000 Gerawan field workers.
     The union was certified by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) in 1992 as exclusive bargaining representative for Gerawan employees, but no contract was negotiated between Gerawan and the UFW for more than 20 years.
     Gerawan said it did not hear from the union until October 2012, when it demanded that contract negotiations be reopened. Gerawan and some balked at the re-emergence of the union, which they say never explained its absence.
     Employees held an election in November 2013 on whether to decertify the union, but the ballots were impounded by the ALRB and have yet to be counted. The board has been trying to determine whether Gerawan violated rules and pressured employees to reject the UFW.
     Gerawan and the union were unable to come to an agreement after several inconclusive bargaining sessions, so the board appointed a mediator, who held hearings and drafted a contract that included wage increases, new grievance procedures and other changes. The ALRB approved the contract in November 2013.
     Gerawan argued, and the court of appeals agreed, that the ALRB should have given the company the opportunity to prove that the union had abandoned the workers during its long absence.
     In a 58-page opinion, Judge Stephen Kane wrote for the three-judge panel that a union’s arguable abandonment of employees, then its return to invoke mediation, may create “a crisis of representation.”
     “(D)uring the union’s long absence, the employees’ working conditions, wages and attitude toward the union (if they even knew they had a union) may have significantly changed over the years. Indeed, it may be the case that the employees do not want to be represented by that union or any other union, which Gerawan asserts was the situation here,” Kane wrote. (Parentheses in ruling.)
     Allowing the union mandatory mediation and conciliation (MMC) violated “equal protection principles” that constituted an improper delegation of legislative authority, the judge wrote.
     The appeals court also found that the MMC, enacted in 2002, did not clearly spell out goals, such as raising workers’ wages or improving working conditions, which the mediator’s labor contract was supposed to achieve, nor did it establish safeguards to ensure that the mediator was unbiased.
     “(T)he risk is simply too great that results will be based largely on the subjective leanings of each mediator or that arbitrary differences will otherwise be imposed on similar employers in the same classification – particularly as there is no objective standard toward which the mediator is required to aim,” Kane wrote.
     Gerawan hailed the decision as a significant victory for its employees and the entire farming industry.
     “The court’s ruling vindicates our argument that no state agency should be able to unilaterally impose a contract on workers without a vote or force it on employers without their consent,” said Dan Gerawan, the company’s co-owner.
     “This decision is a significant win for all agricultural workers, who justifiably deserve the freedom to choose representatives to speak for them at the bargaining table.”
     The UFW said that farm workers across the state are disappointed, but that it believes the ruling will be overturned on appeal to the California Supreme Court.
     The appeals court judges based its decision on false claims made by Gerawan without evidence in the record to support them, the UFW said.
     “For example, the Fresno judges accepted Gerawan’s bogus allegations that the UFW abandoned the company’s workers when no proof was ever presented. They also accepted Gerawan’s dishonest claim that it paid the highest wages in the industry when the neutral state mediator found that was not the case,” the union said in a statement.
     The California Supreme Court will likely hear the case, given that Thursday’s ruling conflicts with a 2006 decision by an appeals court in Sacramento that upheld the law.
     “The UFW looks forward to a fairer hearing before the state high court and is confident that the Supreme Court will overturn this pro-grower decision,” the union said.
     Paul Starkey with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board said the board “does not comment on pending litigation or matters that may come before the board for decision.”

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