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California and the West

Mediator Can Impose Terms of Labor Pact

In a victory for farmworkers, a state appeals court upholds a 2002 law. A growers trade group calls it unconstitutional.

July 07, 2006|Jerry Hirsch | Times Staff Writer

A state appeals court has upheld a law allowing a mediator to impose the terms of an initial labor contract if a grower and its employees can't reach an agreement -- a ruling that could increase the clout of farm unions in California.

Labor leaders said the ruling would force growers to end what they called a pattern of delaying tactics to avoid signing bargaining agreements.

One of the state's largest farm trade groups said Thursday that it would urge an appeal to the California Supreme Court, arguing that it is unconstitutional to impose a contract on unwilling parties.

A 2002 state law grants workers who have voted to unionize the right to demand mediation if the union can't reach agreement on its first contract with a grower within 90 days. If after 30 days of mediation the two sides can't reach a bargaining agreement, the mediator can dictate the terms of any outstanding issues, essentially writing the contract. Either party can appeal the terms to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

In a 2-1 vote, the 3rd District Court of Appeal in Sacramento ruled Wednesday that Hess Collection Winery in Napa must abide by the mediator-imposed terms of a contract with United Food and Commercial Workers Local 1096.

"This clears the way for the law to be implemented and should improve working conditions for farmworkers in California," said Scott Kronland, the attorney who represented the union.

The ruling was an important win for the organizing efforts of the Salinas-based union local. Although the union typically represents grocery store workers, it is making a push into farm work, especially the dairy business, said Pete Maturino, the local's president. California is the nation's largest milk producer.

"We have won five elections in the past year and see a lot of potential in agriculture and ag-related companies," Maturino said. The local has about 3,000 members in agricultural jobs.

Western Growers, a trade group that has 3,000 members in California and Arizona, is urging Hess to appeal the ruling.

Jasper Hempel, general counsel for the Irvine-based farm group, said his organization agreed with dissenting Justice George Nicholson's view that the law "violated equal protection guarantees of the state and federal constitutions."

"Both case and common law say that you can't force a contract between unwilling parties," Hempel said.

Michael Hoffman, an attorney for the winery, said several groups had asked Hess to take the case to the California Supreme Court. No decision has been made, Hoffman said.

In this case, 60 Hess workers elected to organize under the food workers union in 1999, Maturino said. The two sides failed to reach a bargaining agreement, and the union used the 2002 law to demand mediation.

A state-appointed private mediator imposed a contract that included a $10-an-hour wage, a seniority system and most of the other union demands. The contract was upheld by the labor relations board.

The winery filed an appeal with the court, seeking to set aside the board's decision. Among its arguments, the Napa Valley winery contended that state law violated the principles of due process, denied the right of judicial review and was unconstitutional.

The appeals court disagreed, with Justice Richard Sims writing that "there can be no doubt that the Legislature has the authority to regulate employment."

Sims and Presiding Justice Arthur Scotland said that in most collective-bargaining situations the muscle held by employees "is the power to strike," which "serves to equalize the bargaining position of the parties." The state Legislature, however, reasonably found that the power to strike is illusory for farmworkers, the court said.

"The unskilled character of the work, the relatively low wages paid and the seasonal rather than year-round nature of the work combine to make collective action by employees untenable," the judges wrote.

Farmworkers gained the right to organize and bargain with employers through the 1975 state Agricultural Labor Relations Act. But the United Farm Workers of America has long contended that growers refused to bargain in good faith and used a variety of delaying tactics to avoid signing contracts.

"The ruling is a complete victory for farmworkers," United Farm Workers President Arturo S. Rodriguez said. "It is our hope that with this decision, the agricultural lobby will cease its virulent resistance to farmworker organizing and more growers will be encouraged to bargain in good faith."

United Farm Workers officials believe that workers will be more likely to support union representation because they have a legal assurance of a bargaining agreement. United Farm Workers membership ranges from 5,000 to 25,000, depending on the time of the year.

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