Court sides with fruit farm in fight with farm workers union

Siding with one of the largest fruit farms in the nation, a California appeals court ruled unconstitutional a state law that labor activists say is key to helping farm workers improve their working conditions.

The 5th District Court of Appeal said Thursday the law that allows the state to order agricultural unions and farm companies to reach binding labor contracts 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 union, which was launched by iconic farm labor leader Cesar Chavez. The union won the right to represent Gerawan's 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 agreement on a labor deal, so one was crafted by the mediator that was then adopted by the labor relations board, the appeals court said. Gerawan objected to the terms of the deal.

In its ruling, the appeals court said the law — referred to as mandatory mediation and conciliation — 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 mandatory mediation law say it was intended to help workers who had voted in hundreds of elections to join the United Farm Workers, but who 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 the company's workers before ordering the parties into mediation. Gerawan said the union disappeared for nearly two decades after starting contract talks, only returning to the bargaining table in 2012. The union has disputed that claim.

The court 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. Gerawan hires thousands of workers annually to tend and harvest nectarines, peaches and plums and has said it pays the highest wages in the industry.

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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