Agriculture

Gerawan Farming asks judges to open ag labor mediation hearings

Gerawan workers protest outside a closed California Agricultural Labor Relations Board hearing in October 2014 in downtown Fresno.
Gerawan workers protest outside a closed California Agricultural Labor Relations Board hearing in October 2014 in downtown Fresno. Fresno Bee file

The closed-door process for dealing with disputed labor contracts could be open to the public if a Fresno County farmer, farmworker and several media groups can convince the Fifth District Court of Appeal it’s a First Amendment issue.

A panel of judges will hear the case, Gerawan Farming vs. California Agricultural Labor Relations Board, on Wednesday in Fresno.

At issue is whether mandatory mediation and conciliation should be open to the public.

The farming company, one of Fresno County’s largest tree and grape growers, has been tangled in a four-year fight with the United Farm Workers union over representing Gerawan workers.

The union won the right to bargain for some of the workers more than 20 years ago, but the ensuing effort to hammer out an agreement has resulted in multiple lawsuits, a months-long administrative hearing and charges of unfair labor practices.

At issue before the court is whether the state process known as mandatory mediation and conciliation should be open to the public. Under state regulations, a hearing is called when an employer and union can’t agree on a contract and a mediator is brought in to settle the dispute. But the hearings that function much like a court hearing are closed to the public.

Gerawan employee Lupe Garcia tried to attend one of the hearings involving the union and the farming company, but was not allowed.

Right of access is a huge issue for everyone.

Attorney Eugene Volokh

Gerawan officials and media members say it isn’t fair and that excluding the public from the hearing is a violation of the First Amendment.

“The concern is that government is making decisions that affect the public, but without public observation,” said attorney Eugene Volokh, who represents a trio of organizations, including the California Newspaper Publisher’s Association. “Right of access is a huge issue for everyone.”

Volokh, a law professor at the University of California, Los Angeles, has filed a “friend of the court” brief on behalf of the CNPA, the Reporters Committee for Freedom of the Press and the First Amendment Coalition.

Volokh said in his brief that opening the hearings would help the public understand how the process works and how unions and employers are using the process.

“Such a public presence would also enhance the fairness and quality of MMC fact finding, since the very people whose working conditions are being discussed and altered would be present,” Volokh said in court documents.

Gerawan’s attorney David Schwarz said the public’s interest is not served by keeping the hearings closed.

“The board’s secrecy policy erodes and corrodes worker confidence in the ability of the state of California to do what the ALRA promised – to protect their rights,” Schwarz said.

J. Antonio Barbosa, executive secretary of the ALRB, declined to comment on the upcoming hearing, saying it does not talk about pending litigation.

Robert Rodriguez: 559-441-6327, @FresnoBeeBob

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