Court sides with fruit farm in fight with workers union

AP News
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Posted: May 15, 2015 6:51 PM

FRESNO, Calif. (AP) — A California appeals court sided with one of the largest fruit farms in the nation, ruling that a law allowing the state to order unions and farming companies to reach binding contracts was unconstitutional.

Labor activists say the mandatory mediation and conciliation law is a key to helping farm workers improve working conditions.

However, the 5th District Court of Appeal said Thursday it does not clearly state the standards that the contracts are supposed to achieve.

The ruling came in a fight between Gerawan Farming and the United Farm Workers, the union launched by Cesar Chavez. The union won the right to represent Gerawan workers in 1992, but the two sides did not agree to a contract.

At the union's request, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 2013 ordered Gerawan and the UFW to enter into binding mediation. The two sides couldn't come to an agreement so a deal was crafted by the mediator and adopted by the labor relations board, the appeals court said. Gerawan objected to the terms.

"This goes beyond Gerawan," said company attorney David Schwarz. "This sends a signal loud and clear that the entire scheme has serious constitutional defects."

In its ruling, the appeals court said the law does not clearly spell out goals such as raising workers' wages or improving working conditions that the mediator's labor contract is supposed to achieve.

The law also fails to establish any safeguards to ensure the mediator does not favor either side, according to the court.

"The Legislature has delegated broad legislative authority to the mediator and the board under the MMC process, but has not provided adequate standards to guide and direct the use of that delegated authority or prevent its misuse," Associate Justice Stephen Kane wrote in the 3-0 ruling.

Supporters of the law say it was intended to help workers who had voted in elections but weren't enjoying the benefits of union contracts because their employers refused to agree to terms.

United Farm Workers National Vice President Armando Elenes said another appeals court upheld the law in 2006. The union plans to appeal Thursday's decision to the state Supreme Court, which often resolves differences between appellate courts.

"In the meantime, Gerawan farm workers will continue their fight for a fair union contract," he said.

The appeals court also said the labor relations board should have given Gerawan a chance to argue that the union had abandoned company workers before the board ordered the parties into mediation. Gerawan said the union disappeared for nearly two decades after starting contract talks and only returning to the bargaining table in 2012. The union has disputed that claim.

The appeals court also reversed the board's mediation order.

"This is a huge victory for our employees," said Dan Gerawan, who runs the family business in Central California. The company hires thousands of workers annually to tend and harvest nectarines, peaches and plums, and has said it pays the highest wages in the industry.

Dan Gerawan said mediation was a misnomer and the mediator was really trying to force a contract.

Complicating the fight between Gerawan and the UFW is a vote Gerawan workers took in 2013 to decide if they would continue to be represented by the United Farm Workers.

The ballots were impounded by the state labor relations board over allegations of election misconduct and have not yet been counted.

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Thanawala reported from San Francisco.