(Feb. 24) SACRAMENTO, Calif. — After a year of lobbying unsuccessfully against a series of United Farm Worker-backed bills requiring binding mediation in labor contract negotiations, the Western Growers Association, Newport Beach, has taken its case to the courts.

It is a case that pits the United Farm Workers and other unions against growers and other businesses and could take years and a U.S. Supreme Court decision to resolve.

And to prevent the law from taking effect during the fight over its constitutionality, Western Growers is seeking an injunction for the duration of the battle over it.

Western Growers, part of a coalition of agriculture organizations including the California Farm Bureau, filed suit in Sacramento Superior Court Feb. 24 against California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

The lawsuit alleges that binding mediation bills that were signed into law last year by California Gov. Gray Davis and that took effect at the beginning of 2003 are, in reality, binding arbitration laws that are unconstitutional because they force growers into contracts.

The Pacific Legal Foundation will represent for free Western Growers, the other agriculture groups and Excelsior Farming, a company that already has been hit with a demand for labor contract bargaining.

Tom Nassif, who is entering his second year as president of Western Growers, said the law basically eliminates a grower’s constitutional rights to enter into or not to enter into a contract.

UNCONSTITUTIONAL FOR SEVERAL REASONS

Nassif told a workshop audience at the 2003 United Fresh Fruit & Vegetable Association convention in Long Beach that the lawsuit claims the law is unconstitutional based on several causes of action.

First, Nassif said, it deprives farmers of life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness by transferring money earned by the company into the hands of workers without the agreement of the company. Second, he said, the law offers no real court review of any mediation process in a labor dispute. Third, the law unconstitutionally transfers powers between branches of government, he said.

While proponents of the law changed its wording from requiring arbitration to mediation in an effort to appear to be compromising, the result is still binding arbitration, Nassif said.

“What incentive would a union have to give concessions if they know they can appeal to a mediator that is labor friendly?” Nassif asked. “There’s a mentality in Sacramento that you can do something harmful to the farmer and that will somehow be beneficial to the farm worker.”

NATIONAL RAMIFICATIONS

Nassif warned that the fight against this mediation law is neither a California problem nor a regional problem.

“They want to set a precedent in California that would catapult this union to a status with the major national unions,” Nassif said, arguing that should this law stand in California, unions nationwide would be able to organize every profession and craft in the country. “This sets a precedent that changes the entire relationship between employee and employer.”

Nassif also suggested that the law, if allowed to stand, could affect grower relations with lending institutions who might decline to make loans to companies that have had a successful union election for fear that the company might not be a good financial risk.

But Nassif said he was confident that Western Growers and its allies in the lawsuit would prevail legally.

Jasper Hempel, senior vice president of government and legal affairs for Western Growers, said he suspected the United Farm Workers union would intervene in the suit. He warned growers to expect a long fight.

“We could have an answer in as soon as 90-180 days,” Hempel said. “Undoubtedly whoever loses will appeal. It will be another year before the case would be heard at appeal.”

The loser there most likely would appeal to the California Supreme Court, Hempel said, a situation that would tack on another year and a half. An appeal to the U.S. Supreme Court would take another couple of years, he said.

DETERMINED TO WIN

“And whatever happens at the trial court or the appellate level, if the unions lose, they do have the ability to go back to the legislature to create a bill to ‘fix’ the problem,” Hempel said. “We may find ourselves having to file suit after suit after suit, but we’re not going to stop.”

Though the Pacific Legal Foundation is not charging fees for the case, the lawsuit will be expensive in terms of travel, depositions and other legal expenses. After Davis signed the bill last fall, Western Growers sent a letter to its members and other trade associations asking for donations of $100 toward a fund to fight the law.

“We got $130,000 very, very quickly,” Nassif said. “The California Farm Bureau said they would match it dollar for dollar.”

Nassif said he believed the fund was large enough for the fight. If more is needed later, he said, Western Growers would make another appeal.