SAN FRANCISCO (CN) – The California Supreme Court on Monday handed a victory to the nation’s most recognizable agricultural labor unions, unanimously overturning an appellate ruling that state-mandated contract mediation with farmers was unconstitutional.
“We conclude that the MMC (mandatory mediation and conciliation) statute neither violates equal protection nor unconstitutionally delegates legislative power,” Justice Goodwin Liu wrote for the California high court.
Established by the California Legislature in 2002, mandatory mediation and conciliation puts settlement of collective bargaining that can’t be decided by union and employer – including working conditions, hours, vacation time, rest periods, sick days and other work-related issues – in the hands of a third-party mediator.
Farmworker unions say the law is crucial in improving working conditions for laborers, as it forces the hands of farmers by taking away their ability to stall contract negotiations. But the farms say the case was more about the rights of workers to decide whether or not they want to be in a union, pay dues and be part of the collective bargaining process.
In the case decided by the high court on Monday, a collective bargaining agreement could not be reached between fruit producer Gerawan Farming and the United Farm Workers of America, the union made famous by activists Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta.
The collective bargaining went to a mediator, where talks broke down again. The mediator then recommended a set of terms to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board – the state agency tasked with settling labor-related disputes. The board adopted the recommendations of the mediator and imposed them upon Gerawan, which subsequently appealed to the Fifth Appellate District.
Gerawan said the statute requiring farms to submit to forced mediation violated the Constitution, and the appeals panel agreed.
But the Golden State’s high court found the law constitutional, much to the dismay of the farmers.
“Today’s decision imposes UFW on our workers, whether they want the UFW to represent them or not,” said David Schwartz, attorney for Gerawan. “The UFW had disappeared for almost two decades; 99 percent of the Gerawan employees never voted for UFW representation. Many were not born in 1990, which is when the UFW last stood for election.”
Indeed, part of Gerawan’s argument before the California high court involved “abandonment”, with the farm’s attorneys arguing that since the union was absent from the union workers’ lives for decades it had forfeited its status as their representative.
The court did not find the argument persuasive.
“We hold that the distinction drawn by the Court of Appeal is untenable and that employers may not refuse to bargain with unions – whether during the ordinary bargaining process or during MMC – on the basis that the union has abandoned its representative status,” Liu wrote. “As the board and lower courts have consistently observed, the Legislature intended to reserve the power to decertify labor organization representatives to employees and labor organizations alone.”
The UFW celebrated the legal victory and demanded the farm pay the workers according to the terms imposed by the labor board.
“Now that the mandatory mediation law has been upheld, after four years of stalling giant Gerawan Farming Inc. should immediately honor the union contract hammered out by a neutral state mediator in 2013 and pay its workers the more than $10 million it already owes them,” said UFW president Arturo Rodriguez. “Gerawan is exactly the kind of case lawmakers had in mind when they enacted the law because the company has been repeatedly found guilty by the state of California of multiple and serious violations of its workers’ rights, including the right to their union contract.”
But Gerawan says the case is not about excluding their workers’ rights to a union contract, but instead giving their workers the autonomy to decide whether or not they want to be in a union.
“According to the state of California, these workers must now pay 3 percent of their wages to the UFW or lose their jobs,” Schwartz said. “A majority of our workers asked for the right to make that decision for themselves.”
Schwartz added Gerawan employees voted on whether to decertify the union four years ago, but the ballots were confiscated by the labor board. The Fifth Appellate District will eventually decide whether those ballots will be counted.
“Nothing in today’s opinion prevents these ballots from being counted,” Schwartz said. “The court’s decision makes clear why these ballots must be counted.”