(Sept. 3) SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After a weeklong silence by Gov. Gray Davis on the fate of a bill to impose mandatory, binding arbitration on agricultural labor disputes, supporters of State Bill 1736 tried rewriting another bill and forcing it through the Legislature at the last minute.

The action infuriated agribusiness leaders and galvanized them to fight both the old bill and the new one in an even more strident manner. Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers union, which supported SB 1736, said the amended bill was a good compromise.

A vote on the revised bill, SB 1592, was expected by Aug. 30.

John Burton, D-San Francisco, the author of SB 1736, amended SB 1592, which had been aimed at regulating hours of employment at ski resorts. Because it was too late to introduce a new bill, he used a gut-and-amend tactic to replace the language in 1592 with similar language to that found in SB 1736.

The key difference is that the revised and amended SB 1592 gives a mediator, rather than an arbitrator, the ability settle a labor dispute.

“It’s the same garbage in a new bag,” said Joel Nelsen, president of Exeter-based California Citrus Mutual.

But Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the UFW, said SB 1592 was a compromise bill that included 90% of what Davis asked for in a meeting with UFW president Arturo Rodriguez.

“He wanted to eliminate the arbitrator. The farm workers agreed,” Grossman said. “He wanted the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to review, and the farm workers agreed.”

New language in SB 1592 could force union contracts on growers by taking away their ability to negotiate fair wages and contracts.

SB 1736 would give growers and workers 90 days to work out a contract after a pro-union vote by the workers. If negotiations are unsuccessful, either side can turn to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which would have to mandate a 30-day mediation period. If that fails, the labor relations board would then mandate binding arbitration.