(June 25) IRVINE, Calif. — The Western Growers Association warns that a bill that would require binding arbitration between farm worker unions and growers during an impasse in negotiations could put the livelihood of a grower-shipper in the hands of an inexperienced arbitrator.

The bill, SB 1736 by state Sen. John Burton, D-San Francisco, has passed the state Senate and could be passed by the state Assembly in late June. It would then go to the governor.

Supporters of the bill say it is needed to improve a negotiation process that can drag on for decades.
But WGA sees it as unnecessary legislation that could put some produce companies out of business.
“The arbitrator could put in two or three things that are impossible for the employer to do,” said Tom Nassif, WGA president.

Nassif said the bill has the potential to sharply increase production costs and could lead to further consolidation of produce companies and more bankruptcies.

Workers who support the bill say it would help them achieve the same benefits as other U.S. workers, including seniority preference in job openings, medical benefits, paid vacations and wage increases. Marc Grossman, spokesman for the United Farm Workers, Keene, said the legislation will aid thousands of farm workers waiting to secure union contracts.

He points out that workers who groom horses and maintain stables at California racetracks were given a similar right to arbitration in a bill passed last year.

WGA counters that the bill deprives farmers the right to develop a contract with workers after they have voted to certify a union. It violates the contract clause of the U.S. Constitution, Nassif said.
WGA is urging its members to protest the bill by contacting their legislators before it reaches Gov. Gray Davis’ desk.

“It’s a solution to a problem that does not exist, and it’s bad policy, if not unconstitutional,” Nassif said. “It’s bad policy because it deprives 80,000 farmers in California the right to contract. Union representatives know that they don’t need to bargain in good faith because an arbitrator will give them a contract upon demand.”

Nassif said the bill provides an arbitrator free reign to rule on all matters of compensation, employment benefits and work hours. He notes that under the bill, California agricultural employers would be subject to the only law requiring a private employer to arbitrate without mutual consent in labor disputes.

“Binding arbitration is a provision two parties agree to in a contract that can avoid costly litigation,” Nassif said. “The government is trying to utilize it with parties that have no contractual relationship.”
An arbitrator in this situation would need to have a complete level of understanding of all the nuances of agriculture including growing, harvesting, packing, shipping and commodity-specific knowledge, both domestically and in international markets, Nassif said.

The arbitrator would also need to know retailer relationships and requirements and governmental phytosanitary standards, he said.

In addition, Nassif points out that under the current Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the union already has the right to a “make-whole remedy” that provides them the economic benefits if the grower is found to be bargaining in bad faith by the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

However, Grossman insists the make-whole remedy doesn’t work. It takes years, sometimes decades of investigation, prosecution and litigation before farm workers receive anything from the make-whole remedy, Grossman said.