In the ongoing saga of a Valley agriculture company and its labor issues, GV Wire updates the latest in the legal battles of Gerawan Farming vs. Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) and the United Farm Workers (UFW) labor union.
Supreme Court Date Set
The legal fight between a Fresno County fruit grower and the state now has a date in San Francisco.
The California Supreme Court will hear the case on September 5 at 9 a.m. in its chambers in the City by the Bay.
The issue revolves around whether the state has the right to impose a contract on a farm employer on behalf of its employees. It is the next flashpoint in the two-decade long battle between Gerawan and the UFW.
The case, Gerawan Farming, Inc. v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board (United Farm Workers of America, Real Party in Interest), is one of many cases between Gerawan and ALRB. This particular legal issue challenges a 2002 law regarding labor contract mediation. In 2015, Gerawan appealed an ALRB ruling against them to the 5th District Court of Appeal in Fresno. Gerawan won that round. Now, ALRB appealed to the Supreme Court.
The state’s highest court will decide three questions:
-Does the statutory “Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation” (MMC) process (i.e. imposing a mandatory contract) violate the equal protection clauses of the state and federal Constitutions?
– Do the “Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation” statutes effect an unconstitutional delegation of legislative power?
– May an employer oppose a certified union’s request for referral to the “Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation” process by asserting that the union has “abandoned” the bargaining unit?
The last question refers to Gerawan’s contention that the UFW, after organizing workers in the early 1990s, abandoned workers.
According to a detailed report from ag news publication California Ag Today, the UFW had one negotiating session in 1995 before disappearing. It wasn’t until 2012 that the union returned requesting labor negotiations. In 2013, the UFW used a law that allowed and imposed a contract on Gerawan.
“The Supreme Court’s decision to hear our case presents an opportunity to reclaim the purpose of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act — to protect the rights of workers to choose who will speak for them at the bargaining table,” Gerawan attorney David Schwarz tells GV Wire via e-mail. “The MMC violates this basic premise by imposing a forced contract with an absentee union on farm workers and farmers. The Court of Appeal held in our case that this is unconstitutional. We are confident that the Supreme Court will see it this way as well.”
The UFW is looking forward to its day in court. “If there was ever an instance demonstrating why the state mediation law is needed it is the farm workers’ struggle to have a union at Gerawan. For 25 years, Gerawan has denied its workers’ ability to have the union they voted for, using both legal and illegal means,” UFW spokesman Marc Grossman told GV Wire via e-mail. “That is why the Legislature and governor enacted the law and why the state Supreme Court upheld it in 2006.”
Grossman is referring to a decision from the state Supreme Court that emanated from the state 3rd District Court of Appeal based in Sacramento. Gerawan went through the 5th District, based in Fresno. The conflicting opinions practically forced the Supreme Court to make ruling.
It has been a sour relationship between Gerawan and the ALRB/UFW. The groups traded accusations back and forth about negotiating in bad faith, bias and corruption.
Another case waiting in the wings is the status of Gerawan employees voting to decertify UFW in 2013. Those ballots have been reportedly locked up somewhere in an ALRB office, yet to be counted.
ALRB Denies Motion to Dismiss Again
Gerawan has also been battling the appointment in January to the ALRB of Isadore Hall, claiming bias and other unprofessional conduct by the former state legislator. Specifically, Gerawan filed a motion to disqualify Hall on deciding any Gerawan case in front of the board.
The basis of the Motion to Disqualify was based on an alleged interaction between Hall and at the time, an anonymous source, where Hall threatened retaliation to anyone who opposed his nomination to the board.
The ALRB denied the motion, with Hall voting in the three-member unanimous decision. Part of the reason was because evidence from an anonymous source would be akin to hearsay and inadmissible.
Thus, Gerawan filed again, this time identifying the man who allegedly had this conversation with Hall, as an executive at a Madera firm named Shaun Ramirez.
But once again, the ALRB’s three board members came to the same result: motion denied. The reasoning was that Gerawan knew of the identity of the mystery witness all along, and thus that is not grounds to reconsider the first denial. Hall even wrote in the June 9, 2017 decision:
“I can and will, in the words of the oath I took upon assuming this position, “faithfully discharge the duties” of a Board Member of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.”
“As a large agricultural producer, I understand Gerawan Farming has contributed greatly to the economic fabric of the State of California. To be clear, I harbor no bias or hostility toward Gerawan Farming… I reject the claims of bias leveled against me by Gerawan, and decline to recuse myself from participation in the deliberations in this case.”
The case is not over by a longshot.
“Judges cannot judge themselves – that rule applies to the ALRB and to each of its members. Gerawan will appeal this undemocratic decision before a court of law, where this basic protection against arbitrary or self-interested decision-making still matters,” says attorney Schwarz on behalf of Gerawan.
New ALRB Executive Secretary
Although not a voting member of the ALRB, the executive secretary serves many functions, including acting as a quasi-spokesman for the group. Recently, the man serving that post, J. Antonio Barbosa retired after 37 years with ALRB (and 25 as Executive Secretary).
The ALRB appointed Santiago Avila-Gomez as the new Executive Secretary. Previously, he worked at the California Rural Legal Assistance Foundation.
This story has been updated to included UFW’s comment on the Supreme Court case; it also clarifies the history that led to the case going to the state Supreme Court.
image: Hannah Reilly