The California Supreme Court on Monday upheld a state law that compels agricultural employers and their employees’ unions to enter into forced union contracts, overturning an appellate court ruling that the law discriminates against farmers by holding them to different standards.
Gerawan Farming, Inc. challenged the constitutionality of the compulsory arbitration process known as “Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation,” or “MMC”, under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act. Under MMC, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board may impose a binding “agreement” drafted by a private, third party “mediator” with the power to determine virtually every aspect of a grower’s relationship with its workers. The employees have no right to ratify or reject the “contract” imposed upon them, and would require them to pay union dues or lose their jobs.
In a 7-0 decision, the court rejected the constitutional arguments, concluding “…that the MMC statute neither violates equal protection nor unconstitutionally delegates legislative power.”
Gerawan argued that the United Farm Workers Union forfeited their right to represent the workers when the union abandoned Gerawan’s workers shortly after it was certified by the ALRB in 1992. UFW did not contact Gerawan until 20 years later when it demanded contract negotiations and thereafter invoked the MMC process. The ALRB forced Gerawan into MMC, ruling that the UFW is “certified until decertified [by the workers].” A decertification election was held, but the ballots have never been counted due to the ALRB’s ruling that the election was allegedly marred by employer influence.
The Court of Appeal for the Fifth District in Fresno agreed with Gerawan that the UFW forfeited its right to represent the workers when after abandoning them for two decades.
But the State High Court disagreed with the court of appeal. “In sum, we hold that an employer may not defend against a union’s MMC request by challenging the union’s certification as bargaining representative on the basis of abandonment. The Board did not abuse its discretion when it declined to consider Gerawan’s abandonment argument.”
The decision marks the second, and likely final time, that the California Supreme Court has had the opportunity to review the only law in the nation that imposes binding interest arbitration on private employers and employees. Gerawan said it intends to petition the United States Supreme Court for review.
In a companion case, Tri-Fannuchi v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the state Supreme Court considered whether union abandonment is a defense to a make-whole relief remedy. Under the ALRA, make-whole relief is intended in part to compensate employees for employer-caused delays in the collective bargaining process.
In rejecting the employer’s defense, the court said, “[f]or the reasons set forth in Gerawan Farming, Inc. … we hold that the Court of Appeal correctly rejected Tri-Fanucchi’s assertion of an abandonment defense. As we explain in Gerawan, the ALRA does not permit an employer to “unilaterally declare that it will refuse to engage with the union because it believes the union has abandoned its employees… As to the issue of make-whole relief, we hold that the Court of Appeal did not accord the Board sufficient deference and improperly exercised the Board’s remedial authority. We thus reverse in part the Court of Appeal’s judgment.”
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