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Latest News - May 2015

May 20, 2015
Supreme Court could be final arbiter in California labor dispute

A California appeals court recently handed Reedley, CA-based Gerawan Farming a favorable decision in its ongoing battle with the United Farm Workers, meaning the issues at hand may just end up in the U.S. Supreme Court.

“This was a big win,” said Ron Barsamian of Barsamian & Moody, who was co-counsel on the case with David Schwarz of Irell & Manella, a Los Angeles firm. “Though it is only one victory and it will almost certainly be appealed to the California Supreme Court.”

If it gets there, the Fresno, CA-based attorney who specializes in agricultural labor law said the next step would be the U.S. Supreme Court. He added that is always a longshot, as the nation’s highest court grants very few petitions for hearing. But the concept of mandatory mediation is controversial and one that the highest court might want to tackle.

The case revolves around a 2012 law that basically allows the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board to impose mandatory mediation in labor disputes when an impasse has been reached between an employer and the bargaining unit that represents the workers.

When passed by the California Legislature, it was no secret that the law was designed to make it is easier for workers to achieve labor contracts.

With rulings made by the ALRB, the United Farm Workers has used that law in the past couple of years to resurrect decades-old labor disputes where no contract was ever negotiated.

The Gerawan case dates back to 1992, when the UFW won the right to represent Gerawan’s workers. The two sides failed to reach an agreement and Gerawan claims that the UFW abandoned the workers and basically stopped negotiating for two decades.

After this mandatory mediation and conciliation (MMC) law was passed, the UFW petitioned the ALRB to rule that an impasse had been reached 20 years earlier and that mandatory mediation should be imposed. The ALRB did just that.

Eventually, the appointed mediator did create a contract that was not to Gerawan’s liking and the grower-shipper took the case to the courts.

In this ruling, the court reversed the ALRB decision.

Barsamian said Gerawan won two key points in the court ruling last week. In the first place, the court ruled that in this case the contract was achieved without giving Gerawan due process by allowing the firm the opportunity to fully put its case on the record with regard to the UFW abandoning the contract. Gerawan believes that was a pertinent fact that should have been considered when granting an impasse. The court agreed.

In addition, Barsamian said the court questioned the entire constitutionality of mandatory mediation and conciliation because it basically allows the state, through the appointed mediator, to impose wage and working conditions on one employer. The attorney said the state does have the ability through wage orders to impose minimum wages and working conditions on an industry, but not necessarily one employer at a time.

The Appeals Court noted that the MMC law 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.

In writing the opinion in the 3-0 decision, Associate Justice Stephen Kane wrote, “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.”

Following the decision, the UFW said that this decision was in contrast to an earlier appellate court decision and the group would appeal it to the California Supreme Court.

In a companion court case concerning a decertification vote at Gerawan Farming in 2013, Barsamian said briefs are due this Friday, May 22, which should lead to a trial months down the road.

In that case, current employees voted in a secret ballot election as to whether they wanted to decertify the UFW as their bargaining agent. The ALRB impounded those ballots two years ago and they have yet to be counted, as there were allegations of election misconduct. Gerawan is arguing to have those ballots counted.




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