Farm-labor case appears headed to Supreme Court


Issue Date: May 20, 2015
By Dave Kranz

A sweeping state appellate court decision, ruling part of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act unconstitutional, sets the stage for an eventual state Supreme Court decision on the act's mandatory mediation and conciliation provisions.

Ruling unanimously, a three-judge panel of the Fresno-based 5th District Court of Appeal determined the mandatory mediation and conciliation provisions violate equal-protection principles of the U.S. and California Constitutions and also represent "an improper delegation of legislative authority."

Further, the court ruled in favor of the plaintiff in the case, Gerawan Farming of Fresno, that it should have been given an opportunity to prove that the United Farm Workers union had "abandoned" Gerawan employees during a nearly two-decade lapse in fulfilling its representational duties.

"This is a significant ruling with important implications for agricultural employers throughout the state," California Farm Bureau Federation Associate Counsel Carl Borden said. "We're pleased the court agreed with our contention that the mandatory mediation and conciliation provisions are unconstitutional."

CFBF and other agricultural organizations filed a "friend of the court" brief in the case in support of Gerawan, which has been locked in a sporadic 25-year struggle with the UFW.

In 1990, the UFW won an election to represent Gerawan employees in collective bargaining talks. Two years later, the union was certified as the exclusive bargaining agent for Gerawan agricultural employees and began bargaining on a contract. After a single, introductory negotiating session in early 1995, the UFW did not contact Gerawan again until late 2012.

During the intervening years, the state Legislature added the mandatory mediation and conciliation—or MMC—provisions to the law. The 2002 statute establishing the MMC process allows either the union or farmer to seek mandatory mediation and conciliation by petitioning the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

The UFW in March 2013 asked the board to order mandatory mediation and conciliation with Gerawan. The board ordered the process to begin and ultimately, in November 2013, imposed on Gerawan a "collective bargaining agreement" with the UFW.

"The law calls the ALRB order setting terms of employment an 'agreement,'" Borden said, "but as two appellate courts have noted, it isn't truly an agreement because neither party assented to it."

Gerawan appealed the board order in court, arguing that the UFW had abandoned its employees and questioning the constitutionality of the MMC statute itself. The appeals court ruling, issued May 14, agreed with the farm on each of those positions.

Writing for the unanimous panel, Justice Stephen Kane said Gerawan should have been given the chance to argue before the ALRB that the union had abandoned its status as the employees' representative.

"A union that has had little or no contact with the employees or the employer over many years (here, decades) would be unlikely to have an adequate working knowledge of the employees' situation or their wishes," Kane wrote. "From the employees' standpoint, that union would be reappearing on the scene as something of a stranger."

The ruling said the ALRB "abused its discretion" when it ordered the MMC process to begin without properly considering Gerawan's claim of "union abandonment."

But the appeals court went further, ruling that the MMC statute itself was unconstitutional on two grounds.

First, the court said the law violates the equal-protection standard because each individual farm employer subjected to the MMC process would have "a distinct, unequal, individualized set of rules imposed on it." The results, the ruling said, "would not only be unequal, but arbitrary."

"The 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," Kane wrote.

Secondly, the court ruled, the Legislature "has delegated broad legislative authority" to mediators and the ALRB under the MMC statute, "but has not provided adequate standards to guide and direct the use of that delegated authority or prevent its misuse."

In finding an improper delegation of legislative authority, the court said such delegation of authority under the MMC statute "also lacks the necessary procedural safeguards or mechanisms to assure a fair and evenhanded implementation of the legislative mandate to impose a (collective bargaining agreement)."

Borden noted that a different district of the appeals court had upheld the MMC statute in a 2006 ruling. He said he expects the ALRB and UFW to appeal the Gerawan case to the state Supreme Court.

"Because of the conflicting outcomes in the two cases, I believe the Supreme Court will be compelled to rule on this case and settle the constitutional questions surrounding this law," Borden said.

Still unresolved is the result of an election conducted among Gerawan's employees to decertify the UFW as their representative. That election was held two weeks before the ALRB issued its 2013 order imposing the employment terms. The board impounded the ballots and has not yet counted them, pending resolution of UFW claims of misconduct against Gerawan related to the decertification election.

(Dave Kranz is editor of Ag Alert. He may be contacted at dkranz@cfbf.com.)

Permission for use is granted, however, credit must be made to the California Farm Bureau Federation when reprinting this item.