March 1, 2015

Ag Labor Hassles— Will They Never End?

(Excerpted and adapted from a keynote speech given by Mr. Nassif to the National Council of Agricultural Employers at its annual meeting on February 4, 2015.)

Agriculture faces great obstacles today, especially for those engaged in labor-intensive agriculture where certain challenges feel particularly acute.  Over the course of my career, I have participated in some of the major battles our industry has waged over workforce and labor issues.  Unfortunately, as we are all too aware, the battles of the past continue to this day.  You need to look no further than the debate and litigation raging over piece-rate compensation and the recent efforts by the United Farm Workers to resurrect a 20-year-old labor election.

The UFW continues its efforts to gain a following by wreaking havoc for both workers and employers.  Its latest attempt to resurrect the Gerawan case along with efforts to undermine employers who use piece-rate compensation are just the most recent cases worthy of review.

As too many of you know, the UFW’s modus operandi is to unionize workers who have demonstrated no desire for such representation.  The Gerawan case demonstrates that the UFW’s intent is not fairness and justice for workers, nor is it increased wages.  It is about the employment of strong-arm tactics in order to boost union rolls.  Whether or not those tactics are successful, the UFW is content to see workers and employers suffer the consequences.

At the same time, dozens of farm companies are facing huge financial liability over piece-rate compensation thanks to the efforts of a few plaintiffs’ attorneys.  Dozens of class action lawsuits have been filed in California.  Businesses that are sued under the state’s Private Attorney General Act, a section of the state Labor Code that empowers private parties and their attorneys to act with the same powers as the state attorney general, choose to settle.  They do this because the potential exposure, when you include all of the various penalties, can mushroom into the millions of dollars.

Potential legislation that would mitigate the possible retroactive exposure has proven controversial in our own industry because employers who have not been sued do not want to toll the statute of limitations on these claims during the grace period intended to make retroactive payments.  Others don’t want to give up the opportunity of challenging the appellate court decision that created this exposure.  So the potential legislation is either very good or very bad, depending upon whether you’ve been sued or believe you won’t be.

Some California ag employers have begun to challenge the issue, hoping to get another appellate court to see it differently, and setting up a possible conflict with the previous appellate court decision, which could be resolved by the California Supreme Court.

In other words, the plight of farmers hasn’t changed much from the early days of my career when I represented Imperial Valley growers engaged in legal, and sometimes physical, conflict with the union.  Between union power plays and lawyers who use our complex workplace rules to leverage settlements that enrich themselves, farmers in the fresh produce industry face pronounced risks and liabilities that come with a labor-intensive business.

I have invested as much into the cause of agricultural immigration reform as anyone, but I am here to say that even if the political process can give us the best immigration solution we could imagine, that is not going to guarantee our future success.  Don’t get me wrong, we need to fix our broken immigration system, but as the economies in neighboring countries continue to improve, the availability of labor will not increase over time.  In light of our continued reliance on increasingly unstable human labor, the agricultural industry must take a giant leap into the “Precision Ag Era.”  Technology holds the key.

Mechanized labor is probably the long-term solution to this challenge.  Even though fully-autonomous harvesters will probably not arrive during our lifetimes, many innovative pioneers are working on labor-assisting technologies like harvesting aids and accessories.  Western Growers’ member company Ramsay Highlander is one of these.  It has developed mechanical harvesters for a variety of leafy green vegetables.  It also is currently in development of a “select pick” broccoli harvester that will utilize a high-speed vision system and advanced robotics.  This machine will employ Simultaneous Localization and Mapping—or SLAM—computer algorithms that allow a robot to map an unknown environment while simultaneously keeping track of its own location within it.  Hey, if the technology is good enough for the Mars Rover, it’s good enough for a broccoli field in the Salinas Valley, right?

Imaginative approaches to encourage innovation and technological advancement in agriculture will one day help us manage limited resources, including human resources.  Historically, agriculture—especially American agriculture during the 20th century—has been able to surpass each new challenge with a combination of innovation and hard work.  It will be the innovators and adapters most able and ready to take advantage of the opportunities.  In the long term, we must strive for efficient and innovative methods and inventions that will help us lessen our need for and dependence on human labor.  Perhaps it’s time to look toward transforming the way we farm into a new industry that frees us from this kind of battle fatigue.  Robots anyone?