Tuesday, February 18, 2020
Feb. 18, 2020

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Court sides with fruit farm in labor dispute

The Columbian

FRESNO, Calif. — Siding with one of the largest fruit farms in the nation, a California appeals court ruled unconstitutional a state law that labor activists say is key to helping farmworkers improve their working conditions.

The 5th District Court of Appeal said Thursday the law that allows the state to order agricultural unions and farm companies to reach binding labor contracts does not clearly state the standards that the contracts are supposed to achieve.

The ruling came in a fight between Gerawan Farming and the United Farm Workers union, which was launched by iconic farm labor leader Cesar Chavez. The union won the right to represent Gerawan’s workers in 1992, but the two sides did not agree to a contract.

At the union’s request, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board in 2013 ordered Gerawan and the UFW to enter into binding mediation. The two sides couldn’t come to agreement on a labor deal, so one was crafted by the mediator that was then adopted by the labor relations board, the appeals court said. Gerawan objected to the terms of the deal.

In its ruling, the appeals court said the law — referred to as mandatory mediation and conciliation — does not clearly spell out goals such as raising workers’ wages or improving working conditions that the mediator’s labor contract is supposed to achieve.

The law also fails to establish any safeguards to ensure the mediator does not favor either side, according to the court.

“The legislature has delegated broad legislative authority to the mediator and the board under the MMC process, but has not provided adequate standards to guide and direct the use of that delegated authority or prevent its misuse,” Associate Justice Stephen Kane wrote in the 3-0 ruling.

Supporters of the mandatory mediation law say it was intended to help workers who had voted in hundreds of elections to join the United Farm Workers, but who weren’t enjoying the benefits of union contracts because their employers refused to agree to terms.

The union plans to appeal Thursday’s decision to the state Supreme Court, which often resolves differences between appellate courts.