(Oct. 3) SACRAMENTO, Calif. — Grower organizations are looking into legal arguments to derail a binding agricultural labor mediation bill Gov. Gray Davis signed into law over their strident objections.

Meanwhile, the United Farm Workers union is celebrating a victory in its efforts to give more power to farm workers seeking labor contracts with growers.

“This was the most important labor legislation in 27 years,” said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the UFW.

Agricultural lobbyists and representatives of growers organizations met Oct. 3 to settle on a plan to challenge the law, which Tom Nassif, president of the Irvine-based Western Growers Association, said violated state and national constitutions.

“We’ll look at every aspect, from possible venues to legal theories,” Nassif said.

Davis had less than 12 hours left to sign the bills when he did so Sept. 30 as jubilant United Farm Workers members who had been having a vigil at the state capitol cheered.

Davis signed Assembly Bill 2596 and Senate Bill 1156, saying that doing so fulfilled a promise California made 27 years ago to its agricultural workers for decent wages and working conditions.

“The 1975 law that gave farm workers the right to be recognized at the bargaining table, the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, had a significant impact on the rights, wages and working conditions of California farm workers,” Davis said in a prepared statement. “But it is clear that some parts of the system are broken. In nearly 60% of the cases in which a union wins an election, management never agrees to a contract.”

Davis said the appeals process, coupled with a complicated formula for determining damages, often takes so long that the farm workers no longer can be located by the time an award is made.

The concept of binding arbitration has been a hard-fought battle this summer that pitted the UFW, long time supporters of the governor, against growers. An original bill passed by a Democratic legislature, SB 1736, would have imposed binding mediation in contract disputes between growers and farm workers but proved politically risky for Davis.

Late in the summer, after a deadline had passed to introduce new bills, UFW supporters in the legislature rewrote other bills with similar language. Two of them, SB 1156 and AB 2596, Davis signed into law.

Davis said the bills were an improvement over SB 1736 because they limited the effect to a pilot program that would only cover up to 75 cases in five years and because they limited the applicability to growers with 25 or more farm workers.

The bills apply to first contracts only, Davis said. Additionally, the parties involved in a dispute must have tried to negotiate a contract for six months to a year and, if the bargaining unit was first certified before January 2003, the employer must have been found to have committed an unfair labor practice if there is to be supervised mediation by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Grossman said the signing of the bills was a victory, but it was a compromise between the governor and the UFW.

“The UFW wanted binding arbitration, but it was clear the governor wasn’t going to go there,” Grossman said. “The two bills he signed included concessions from the union.”

Those include sunsetting, which limits the program to five years, and the limit on the number of cases brought.

“Industry argues that this legislation could cripple it,” Grossman said. “That made more sense with 1736. According to the California Farm Bureau, there are 86,000 farms. These bills will affect 75 over five years. How is that going to cripple the industry?”

Nassif said the bills the governor signed into law effectively call for binding arbitration but disguise it with the term mediation. In effect, he said, it forces contracts on California’s farmers and farm workers by government agents.

A.G. Kawamura, chairman of the board of WGA and a partner in Orange County Produce LLC, Irvine, Calif., said WGA will take whatever steps are necessary to fight the new law.

“These bills signed by the governor destroy the collective bargaining process between growers and farm workers and their unions and unfairly singles out the agricultural industry for a labor relations process found nowhere else in the United States,” Kawamura said.