State Supreme Court rules against Gerawan Farming in dispute with United Farm Workers

Lourdes Cardenas waves a UFW flag as she and others protest alleged intimidation by Gerawan Farming, in front of the state building in 2014.
Lourdes Cardenas waves a UFW flag as she and others protest alleged intimidation by Gerawan Farming, in front of the state building in 2014. Fresno Bee file

The California State Supreme Court on Monday ruled against Gerawan Farming’s attempts to dismantle the state’s process for settling employment contract disputes.

Gerawan, one of the largest tree fruit farmers in the nation and based in Fresno County, has been locked in a battle with the United Farm Workers for four years over a union agreement with its workers.

The dispute has lead to numerous lawsuits, a failed attempt to kick the union out and several findings of unfair labor practices by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

At issue before the state Supreme Court was the legality of the process known as Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation and whether the UFW’s alleged absence for 17 years should be considered a factor.

In its 48-page decision, the justices ruled against Gerawan on both counts.

“We conclude that the MMC (mandatory mediation and conciliation) statute neither violates equal protection nor unconstitutionally delegates legislative power,” the ruling states.

Gerawan’s attorney Ron Barsamian said the company intends to ask the U.S. Supreme Court to review the decision.

The justices also did not accept Gerawan’s argument that the union’s absence during those years meant it forfeited its status as an employee representative.

The state created the mandatory mediation process as a way to compel employers, who were often accused by worker advocates for dragging their feet in contract negotiations. Under the state’s rules, the MMC can begin after an initial 30-day period of voluntary mediation is exhausted.

The mediator takes evidence and hears arguments from the parties on all disputed issues, then submits a report to the board with the mediator’s findings on what should be the terms of the collective bargaining agreement.

About 150 Gerawan Farming Inc. workers protested an April 15 decision by the ALRB upholding an administrative law judge’s findings that the company interferred with a decertifcation vote. The company appealed the board’s decision. The protest took place outside the Fifth Circuit Court of Appeals. JUAN ESPARZA LOERA Fresno Bee file

Both parties are bound to the terms of the imposed agreement.

Barsamian said it is unfair for the company’s current employees to be under a union contract for which few of them voted.

“Many were not born in 1990 when the UFW last stood for election as their representatives,” he said. “Now, despite a history of earning the industry’s highest wages, the state wants to force these workers to pay 3 percent of their wages to the UFW or lose their jobs.”

Barsamian said that company’s workers still deserve the right to know the results of a disputed 2013 election to try and oust the UFW.

“Nothing in today’s opinion prevents the employees’ ballots from being counted. In fact, the court’s decision makes clear why these ballots must be counted,” Barsamian said. “Currently pending before the California Fifth District Court of appeal is a petition filed by the workers arguing that the ballots cast in that November 2013 election be counted.”

UFW officials were thankful the justice’s ruled against the farming company.

“The state high court categorically rejected all of Gerawan’s legal and constitutional challenges to California’s landmark Mandatory Mediation Law – including its allegations about “abandonment” by the union – and upheld the law’s constitutionality,” Arturo Rodriguez, the UFW’s president said in a statement.

Rodriguez said that now the court has ruled, Gerawan 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.”

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, strongly disagreed with Monday’s ruling.

“The United Farm Workers union has had a powerful grip on California for decades,” Patterson said. “The unfair laws they’ve put in place make farmworkers powerless in deciding their own fate – stripping them of the same employee rights afforded to every other worker in this state. Today’s decision by the Supreme Court unjustly allows one of these laws to continue.”

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob