Farm workers in California would win the permanent right to mandatory mediation in labor disputes under a bill that has quietly made its way through the Legislature and now awaits the governor's signature.
The bill, sponsored by state Sen. John Burton (D-San Francisco), seeks to remove the sunset provision from a law enacted last year that permits state agricultural officials to impose mediation in cases where contract negotiations between farm labor unions and growers reach an impasse.
The current law, championed by the United Farm Workers union and the subject of intense lobbying by growers and laborers, limits the number of cases a party can bring to 75 and is set to expire Jan. 1, 2008. Burton's bill would remove the case cap and expiration date, a move that union officials said was necessary to ensure that future generations of farm workers received the protection of the landmark action.
"The problem of farm workers not getting what they voted for in state-conducted, secret-ballot elections isn't going away after five years," UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said. "Frankly, we don't foresee a big jump in the number of cases brought after five years. We expect and already have begun to see the new law encouraging good-faith negotiations so that we don't need to resort to mediators."
But Burton's bill has outraged growers, who fought against passage of last year's law and filed suit earlier this year to overturn it.
They maintain that the law denies the constitutional rights of growers and workers to bargain for contracts, and could cripple California's $30-billion farm economy. Moreover, growers say the pending legislation abandons a compromise fashioned last year in which UFW leaders promised to limit the length of the mediation program to win Gov. Gray Davis' support.
"They completely went back on their word," said Rob Roy, a farm industry attorney and president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., one of half a dozen grower groups that have sued to overturn the mediation law. The groups are urging Davis to veto Burton's bill.
"Here they pass this new law and, less than 12 months later, they want to change everything," Roy said. "They want to be able to use mandatory mediation in perpetuity as a future bargaining tool."
Grossman brushed off the criticism: "The growers have little credibility to talk about anyone going back on their word when they zealously fought the law every step of the way."
A spokesman for Davis said the governor has not taken a position on the bill. The Legislature approved the bill in recent weeks and Davis has until Oct. 12 to take action.
Last year, Davis waited until the last possible day to sign the mediation bill, caught between political pressure from influential growers and protests by the UFW, whose members marched on Sacramento and held a vigil outside the state Capitol.
Under the new law, farm workers or growers can ask the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose mediation in cases where contract negotiations have stalled.
The mediator would have the power to set 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 could then be appealed to the state Court of Appeal or the California Supreme Court.
UFW officials said the measure was needed to fulfill the original vision of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which had been adopted in 1975 to referee farm labor disputes and oversee union elections.
The union contends that the law has been circumvented by growers, who have dragged their heels at the bargaining table.
Since 1975, UFW officials say that farm workers have voted for the UFW in secret-ballot elections at 428 companies. Of those, only 185 have entered into union contracts.
So far, two agricultural unions have invoked the new statute.
In April, the United Food and Commercial Workers union filed a request for mandatory mediation, saying that contract negotiations had stalled between workers and officials at the Hess Collection winery in Napa Valley. And in July, the UFW requested that state agricultural officials impose mediation to resolve a long-running labor fight at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm near Ventura.
Both cases are moving through the process. The Pictsweet case is scheduled to go to a mediator at the end of this month, bringing a possible end to a labor dispute that has continued at the mushroom plant for more than a decade.
"It really does balance the scales," said Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an Oxnard attorney representing the UFW in the Pictsweet talks. "There's absolutely no good reason in this day and age to deny workers, who have organizing ability, the right to a fair contract."