Seizing on a powerful new weapon aimed at ending contract disputes, the United Farm Workers union requested Thursday that state agricultural officials impose mandatory mediation to resolve a long-running labor fight at Southern California's largest mushroom farm.
The filing is the first by the UFW under a new state law that allows agricultural workers or employers to seek mediation in cases where farm-labor negotiations reach an impasse.
UFW negotiators say that is the case at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura, where workers have been without a contract since 1987 and talks in recent years between the company and the union have failed to progress.
"The workers deserve to get a contract after all of these years
The mediation request was served Thursday at Pictsweet's Ventura office and sent to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which referees farm labor disputes and oversees union elections.
Harry Stang, an attorney for Pictsweet's parent company, Tennessee-based United Foods Inc., said the move came as no surprise.
"My view is that an effort at good-faith bargaining had real potential to solve this, but since the legislation was enacted the UFW has shown no interest in good-faith bargaining," Stang said. The union "obviously has been setting itself up to proceed to mediation."
Legislators last summer agreed to rewrite California's farm labor law to require submission of agricultural labor disputes to arbitration when talks between unions and growers reach a deadlock.
Under the landmark legislation, championed by the UFW and signed in September by Gov. Gray Davis, a mediator has the power to impose terms of a contract if the two sides can't reach an agreement after 30 days of mediation.
Thursday's request marks just the second time that an agricultural union has invoked the new statute.
In April, the United Food and Commercial Workers union filed a similar request, saying that contract negotiations had stalled between workers and officials at the Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley. The farm labor board in May ordered the parties to mediation.
In the meantime, farm industry leaders continue to challenge the new law, arguing that it will cripple the state's $27-billion agriculture industry and put farmers out of business.
A statewide coalition of farm groups filed suit in February seeking to strike down the statute, charging that it denies the constitutional rights of growers and workers to bargain for contracts. A Sacramento County Superior Court judge ruled last week that the lawsuit could not go forward until the mediation process runs its course and the farm labor board approves a mediated contract.
The Pictsweet Mushroom Farm could be one of the first in line for such a contract.