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California Supreme Court Upholds MMC

February 21, 2018

The state's largest peach grower, Gerawan Farms, has been embroiled in a dispute with the United Farm Workers since the early 1990s, and unsuccessfully challenged the state's 2002 Mandatory Mediation and Conciliation (MMC) law. The California Supreme Court in November 2017 held that a union remains certified to represent farm workers until that union is decertified lawfully by current workers.

The Agricultural Labor Relations Act was enacted in 1975 "to ensure peace in the agricultural fields by guaranteeing justice for all agricultural workers and stability in labor relations." Contemporary observers expected the ALRA to usher in an era when most of the state's farm workers would work on farms with collective bargaining agreements. In fall 1975, there were almost 100 elections a month, and unions won over 95 percent of those whose results were certified.

Election activity slowed in the 1980s and 1990s after internal UFW changes, Republican appointments to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, and rising unauthorized migration. Despite a unique make-whole remedy for bad-faith bargaining that requires employers who fail to bargain in good faith to make their employees whole for any wage and benefit losses while the employer failed to bargain as required, the UFW charged that employers were delaying bargaining, discouraging workers from voting for union representation.

The UFW in 2002 persuaded the California Legislature to enact the MMC law to reduce employer-caused delays after unions were certified to represent workers by ensuring a collective bargaining agreement within a year of a union being certified. After bargaining for six months, MMC allows unions or employers to request a mediator to help reach an agreement. If mediation fails, the mediator becomes an arbitrator and develops a contract that the ALRB can order the parties to implement.

The expectation was that MMC would unleash a wave of organizing, elections and collective bargaining agreement at farms that never had elections or contracts. Instead, MMC was invoked at so-called "old certifications," cases where a union was certified to represent workers before 2002, the employer committed an unfair labor practice, and a collective bargaining agreement was never signed.

Gerawan was an old certification. The ALRB certified the UFW as the bargaining representative for Gerawan workers in July 1992, but no contract was negotiated during a February 1995 bargaining session, and there were no further negotiations.

The UFW in 2012 requested bargaining and, after several bargaining sessions, the UFW requested mediation. Many of Gerawan's workers objected to UFW representation, pointing out that only a few workers who voted for the UFW in 1990 were still at Gerawan in 2012. They asked the ALRB to supervise an election to de-certify the UFW, which was held in November 2013. However, the ALRB found that Gerawan unlawfully interfered with the decertification election, and the votes were not counted.

Meanwhile, a mediator developed a Gerawan-UFW contract that the ALRB ordered Gerawan to implement. Gerawan refused and challenged the constitutionality of MMC, arguing that MMC allowed the state to impose different rules on different farms. The 5th District Court of Appeal in May 2015 agreed that MMC was unconstitutional, and also agreed that Gerawan should have been able to challenge the UFW's continued right to represent Gerawan employees after almost two decades of no contact between the UFW and Gerawan.

The California Supreme Court reversed the 5th District Court and upheld the constitutionality of the MMC law and the ALRB's finding that a union remains certified to represent farm workers until it is decertified. The Supreme Court found that a mediator can take into account the unique circumstances of each farm and variance in wages and benefits by commodity and area, so mediator-imposed contracts do not violate equal protection guarantees.