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August 1, 2015

Legal Eagles, on the Farmers’ Side

Throughout the pages of this magazine, you will see articles and ads featuring many of the very best attorneys in the country specializing in areas of the law that affect farmers and related ag businesses.  This annual edition of our magazine—the Ag Legal issue—always takes me back to my own days as a labor lawyer in Imperial Valley representing farmers at a very tough time.

It was the 1970s and the United Farm Workers was on the march, literally and figuratively, using the newly-enacted California Agriculture Labor Relations Act (ALRA) and a union-friendly state administration to pressure growers (and many unwilling farm workers) into union contracts that would feed the union’s aspirations.

There was conflict in the fields and in other places farm workers gathered, as the union applied pressure to workers (to be polite) to vote for union representation, and pay compulsory union dues.  Farmers resisted, hiring private security firms to try to hold off union violence and illegal activity.  National media and politicians descended on the fields to follow the drama and report on the conflicts, some of which turned violent.  In the middle of all this I found myself, a young lawyer raised not in farm country, but in Hollywood, doing legal battle with the UFW and, eventually, sitting across the table from Cesar Chavez in the first ALRB hearing.  It was held in the governor’s office and had a predetermined outcome.  While I didn’t know many of them at the time, there were other young lawyers like me doing battle with the unions in other parts of the state, all of us honing our legal skills in a trial by fire that would never completely die down.

Today, I read our annual Ag Legal issue and think proudly of the many lawyers who came of age professionally during those days.

Many joined Western Growers in the late ‘70s and ‘80s to form an in-house labor law firm to represent our members at the height of the UFW’s activity.  Their names are an enduring part of Western Growers’ history:  Ron Barsamian, Jim Bogart, Larry Dawson, Don Dressler, Geoffrey Gega, Jeff Guttero, Wayne Hersh, the late Lew Janowsky, Terry O’Connor, Richard Quandt, Marion Quesenberry, Rob Roy, Pat Rynn, Howard Silver, Charley Stoll, Cal Watkins, Scott Wilson and Sara Wolfe.

Many of those young guns went on to build their own practices, protecting the interests of farmers in never-ending conflicts with the unions.  You will see their names in court filings and newspaper stories.  Many continue to serve our members on the front lines in conflicts with the UFW and other activist groups, as well as state and federal regulators, who often seem ideologically aligned against us.

The veterans of the Western Growers legal team inspired the creation of our Ag Legal Network, which has grown to include many more whose expertise and dedication to agriculture are unsurpassed.

This isn’t just idle reminiscing.  It is important historical context that helps WG members understand the value of our Ag Legal Network and our deep commitment to helping our members fight for what is right.  Those difficult days of social, legal and political conflict inspired in the volunteer and professional leaders of Western Growers the foresight to ensure that our members would always have the best legal firepower available.

It gives me a real sense of pride to lead the organization that fostered this small but powerful team of legal advocates dedicated to family farmers.  As any really good lawyer or doctor will tell you, “I hope you never need my services,” but the reality is that few are that lucky.  So here’s a bit of non-legal advice from a non-practicing attorney who has seen a lot of that reality:  Don’t throw this issue away.  Keep it handy, and when the need arises, take advantage of your preferred access to the best legal professionals in the nation dedicated to representing farmers.