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A Big Win for Farm Workers

Agriculture: Davis signs two bills mandating mediation in disputes. Growers call the new laws unconstitutional.


SACRAMENTO — Gov. Gray Davis, caught between protests from the United Farm Workers union and political pressure from influential growers, on Monday signed legislation giving California farm laborers the right of mandatory mediation in deadlocked contract negotiations.

Davis waited until the last possible day to act on the controversial pair of bills, the focal point of one of the Legislature's most riveting battles this year. He made repeated efforts to prevent the legislation from reaching his desk, then later negotiated with UFW representatives to limit the scope of the two measures he signed Monday.

Representatives of California's $27-billion agricultural industry condemned the legislation as unconstitutional and said it would force many family farms out of business and cause food prices to rise.

For the UFW, after years of decline and internal divisions, winning the right of mandatory mediation marks a triumph unprecedented since the passage of the 1975 agricultural labor relations law.

Under the companion bills--Senate Bill 1156 and Assembly Bill 2596--farm workers can ask the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose mandatory mediation in cases where contract negotiations with growers have stalled, beginning in January. The bills limit the number of cases a party may bring to 75 and set a Jan. 1, 2008, expiration date on the remedy.

The legislation, which only applies to agricultural workers, exempts farmers who employ fewer than 25 people.

Farm workers, who have maintained a vigil outside the Capitol for weeks, greeted the news with shouts of joy.

"We're very excited," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, son-in-law of UFW founder Cesar Chavez. "Farm workers are like all working people: All they want is to be treated with respect and dignity. This ensures that is going to happen. It's definitely going to improve people's lives."

Davis' action marks the first changes in the state's landmark 1975 Agricultural Labor Relations Act, signed into law by Gov. Jerry Brown, whose chief of staff was Davis.

Growers reacted with anger and dismay.

In a statement, Tom Nassif, president of the Western Growers Assn., which represents 3,500 farmers in California and Arizona, expressed shock and anger that Davis "has signed into law legislation so patently illegal and potentially destructive to the California farmer. This at a time when our industry is under attack by a flood of foreign imports and a weak farm economy."

Mike Webb, a lobbyist for the association and key player in the legislative battle over the bills, said there was a "good probability" that growers would challenge the law on constitutional grounds.

Growers contend that the new law actually imposes binding arbitration--not mediation--on negotiations between farmers and farm workers.

"The mediator is imposing terms of the contract," Webb said. "They can call it what they like, but this is binding arbitration. California agriculture is the only major industry in the nation that is going to have this draconian measure imposed on it, and that's unfair. The current system does work. Our fears are [the new legislation] is going to drive costs up for the family farmer, make it more difficult for them to compete with other states and other countries."

In a statement announcing his decision, Davis said the legislation would "offer a blueprint for addressing the most serious failings in the system when negotiations between growers and farm workers cannot be resolved."

Davis noted that in nearly 60% of the cases in which a farm workers union has won an election, the union hasn't been able to get a contract from management.

Under the system laid out by the legislation, the mediator will have the power to propose the terms of a binding contract if the two sides can't reach an agreement after 30 days of mediation.

Either side can appeal the contract terms to the labor relations board. The board's decision can be appealed to the state Court of Appeal or California Supreme Court.

The mediation will only apply to negotiations for first contracts.

Latino legislators, who united in unanimous support for the UFW legislation, praised Davis for signing the bills.

"I'm very pleased," said Assemblyman Tony Cardenas (D-Panorama City), whose father picked produce in the California fields during the 1940s and 1950s after emigrating from Mexico. "I think the Latino community is going to show a lot of appreciation for this."

Cardenas was one of dozens of legislators who joined a series of marches, fasts and vigils organized by the UFW to pressure Davis to sign the bills.

"I hope what this says is that Gray Davis appreciates farm workers," Cardenas said. "When farm workers vote for a union, the growers shouldn't be able to hide behind their high-powered lawyers."

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