The question of whether collective bargaining agreements can legally be foistered on California farmworkers was officially considered in court on Monday, setting up what promises to be a pivotal case for the future of the state's produce sector.
Employees from the stonefruit and grape grower, known for its 'Prima' brand, held an historic protest outside the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) offices in August, calling for their votes to be counted from an election to decertify from the United Farm Workers (UFW) union.
Around two weeks later, ALRB General Counsel Sylvia Torres-Guillen sought 15 orders against the company, alleging it had given unlawful support to the union decertification efforts.
But last week the tide started to turn against the ALRB when the California Court of Appeal in Fresno granted Gerawan's request to review the constitutionality of the forced contracting scheme that ties farmworkers to the UFW without their consent.
On Monday the court then asked for an explanation of whether the board "abused its discretion" by ordering the contract "at a time when an election had been recently held that may have decertified the UFW as the employees' bargaining representative".
"We are gratified that the Court accepted our case. Our family, our workers, and our industry need an answer to the fundamental question raised by this appeal – whether the state can legally write a contract and force it on employers without their consent, or impose the UFW on workers without their vote," co-owner Dan Gerawan said in a release.
The UFW did win an election with Gerawan Farming workers in 1990, but the company claims that after certification with the ALRB in 1992 the union "abandoned" the workers and did not resurface until almost 20 years later. Under state law, the UFW compelled Gerawan into a forced contracting process, followed by the ALRB drafting and imposing a contract on Gerawan and its workers.
"No other state in the nation allows the government to draft and enforce a collective bargaining agreement on a private employer," Gerawan said.
"No other law permits a state agency to dictate that workers must pay dues to a union or to lose their jobs, or bar the right of private employees from exercising their First Amendment right to picket, boycott, or strike.
"We believe that the Board's order violates the Constitution and a basic principle of workplace democracy – the right of all workers to choose whether the UFW, or any union, may speak in their name, or to bind them to a contract."
The company described the court's order, which stays further attempts by the UFW and the ALRB General Counsel to compel immediate contract enforcement pending the appeal, as a "victory for the rule of law".
The ALRB and the UFW previously asked two different trial courts to immediately enforce the contract. On both occasions
the trial courts refused.
"The Board and the UFW sought 'enforcement first, judgment later.' No person should be forced to submit to an order of a state agency without the right of judicial review. The Court of Appeal's order vindicates that right," Gerawan said.
"I believe that the Court's decision should give hope to thousands of workers who are still waiting for their votes to be counted before – not after – a forced contract may be imposed on them."