The state Supreme Court announced Wednesday that it unanimously granted petitions by the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board and the UFW to review a May ruling by the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno striking down a law allowing the state board to impose contracts on farms when growers and unions are unable to agree to terms. That ruling was seen as a blow to the ALRB’s authority over growers in their dealings with farm-labor unions, but runs counter to a 2006 ruling by the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento upholding a 2002 mandatory mediation law.
It will be up to the Supreme Court to reconcile the conflicting appeals court decisions and decide whether the mandatory mediation law is constitutional or not.
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.
UFW national vice president Armando Elenes
The ALRB has been in the middle of a legal battle between the UFW and Gerawan Farming – one of Fresno County’s largest growers of tree fruit and grapes – that has gone on for about three years over representation of Gerawan’s fieldworkers and efforts to negotiate a labor contract. The union won an election to represent Gerawan workers in 1992, but subsequent contract negotiations proved fruitless. In 2012, the UFW returned to Gerawan to reassert its right to represent the workers, emboldened by the 2002 law making it easier for the ALRB to force farm employers into “mandatory mediation and conciliation” – essentially binding arbitration – when a grower and union cannot reach agreement on a deal.
A complex situation got even more complicated in 2013, when workers at Gerawan petitioned the ALRB for a new election to decertify the union. After several fits and starts, an election was held in November 2013, but the ALRB has impounded those ballots while an administrative law judge sorts through complaints by the union alleging a slew of unfair labor practices against Gerawan that the UFW believes tainted the election.
After the ALRB ordered imposition of a mandatory mediated contract over Gerawan’s objections while decertification ballots went uncounted, the farming company appealed the order to the 5th District court. Judges there ruled the ALRB unlawfully forced the contract on the farming company, deciding that the mandatory mediation law was unconstitutional. Gerawan argued, and the appeals court agreed, that the ALRB should have given the company the opportunity to prove that the union abandoned the workers during its nearly two-decade absence. The board did not, and the union pushed the contract negotiations into mandatory mediation.
By doing so, the 5th District justices wrote, the mandatory mediation process violated “equal protection principles” that constituted an improper delegation of legislative authority.
We welcome the Supreme Court review of this forced-contracting scheme and are confident that they will reaffirm the fundamental fairness that a union cannot impose itself on workers after having abandoned them for nearly two decades.
Gerawan Farming co-owner Dan Gerawan
Paul Starkey, special board counsel to the ALRB, said the agency does not comment on litigation such as the appeal to the Supreme Court. But the UFW and Gerawan Farming both said they’re eager for the Supreme Court’s review of the case.
“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,” UFW national vice president Armando Elenes said in a statement issued late Wednesday. “All of us knew the ruling by the 5th District was going to the California Supreme Court because of the 2006 ruling upholding the same law by the 3rd District Court of Appeal … despite a vigorous industry challenge to the Mandatory Mediation Law.”
On Thursday, Gerawan Farming co-owner Dan Gerawan said “we welcome the Supreme Court review of this forced-contracting scheme and are confident that they will reaffirm the fundamental fairness that a union cannot impose itself on workers after having abandoned them for nearly two decades.”
It will likely be months, however, before the Supreme Court decides anything. According to the court’s practices and procedures, the UFW and ALRB now have 30 days in which to file briefs on the merits of the case. Attorneys for Gerawan then will have 30 days to file an answering brief. Other interested organizations or individuals will also likely weigh in with amici curiae (“friends of the court”) briefs to offer their perspectives for the justices to consider, potentially extending the schedule even further.
Once the case has been fully briefed, it typically takes several months to a year for the court to schedule oral arguments before the justices. Oral arguments are only heard during one week each month except July and August. The court issues written opinions within three months of hearing oral arguments in cases.