Employment Law Daily California ag employers may not refuse to bargain on basis that union abandoned its representative status
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Friday, December 1, 2017

California ag employers may not refuse to bargain on basis that union abandoned its representative status

By Ronald Miller, J.D.

After rejecting an employer’s challenges to the constitutionality of the “mandatory mediation and conciliation” (MMC) provisions of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the California Supreme Court ruled that the employer may not refuse to bargain with a union on the basis that the union abandoned its representative status. The court pointed out that the purpose of the MMC statute was to revive long-dormant relationships between agricultural employers and labor unions in order to facilitate the adoption of first collective bargaining agreements. Accordingly, it concluded that the ALRB did not abuse its discretion when it declined to consider the employer’s abandonment argument (Gerawan Farming, Inc. v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board and Tri-Fanucchi Farms v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board, November 27, 2017, Liu, G.).

Constitutional challenge. In 1975, the California legislature enacted the Agricultural Labor Relations Act to encourage and protect the right of agricultural employees to bargain collectively using a representative of their own choosing. In 2002, the ALRA was amended to provide for mandatory mediation and conciliation to ensure a more effective collective bargaining process for agricultural employees.

Soon after the legislature enacted the MMC statute, agricultural employers challenged its constitutionality. In Hess Collection Winery v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the court of appeals rejected claims that the MMC statutory scheme violated principles of due process and equal protection, interfered with the right of contract, invalidly delegated legislative authority, and was vague and overbroad.

Request for mandatory mediation and conciliation. In this case, the employees voted to be represented by the United Farm Workers (UFW) in 1990. After employer challenges were disposed of in 1992, the union requested bargaining. It renewed its request to bargain in 1994. One bargaining session was held, but no agreement was reached. The union again attempted to restart negotiations in 2012. When no voluntary agreement was reached, the union filed an MMC request with the ALRB after failing to reach a collective bargaining agreement with the employer. When mediation also failed to produce a contract, the mediator submitted a report fixing the contractual terms. The ALRB adopted the report as its final order.

Thereafter, the employer petitioned for a review of the ALRB’s order asserting, among other things, that the MMC scheme was unconstitutional. The employer also argued that the ALRB’s order should be set aside because the union abandoned its status as the employees’ certified bargaining representative after a “nearly two-decade absence.” Adopting the reasoning of the dissent in Hess, the appeals court agreed, holding that “the MCC statute on its face violates equal protection principles,” and that it “improperly delegated legislative authority.”

Constitutional claims. The California Supreme Court granted review of the constitutional challenge to resolve the conflict with Hess, and also granted review of the employer’s claim that the bargaining representative had abandoned its employees after a lengthy absence, and therefore forfeited its representative status. The California high court first tackled the constitutional challenges posed by the employer with regard to the MMC statute—namely that it violated due process by imposing interest arbitration without the employer’s consent; violated equal protection; and unconstitutionally delegated legislative power.

First, the employer argued that compulsory interest arbitration in the private sector was categorically impermissible because it forces employers into arbitration without their consent. The employer acknowledged that interest arbitration is a fairly common feature of public sector labor relations. Moreover, the court observed that the rareness of interest arbitration in the private sector stems from the U.S. Supreme Court’s determination that the NLRA does not authorize compulsory arbitration. However, there was no indication in the case law that compulsory arbitration in areas not covered by the NLRA would be unconstitutional.

Facial challenge. Next, the California high court determined that the MMC statute was not facially invalid on equal protection grounds because the legislature had a rational basis for enacting the law to facilitate collective bargaining agreements between agricultural employers and employees. The employer conceded, and the court agreed, that differentiating between employers with existing CBAs and those without bore a rational relationship to the statutory purpose of promoting collective bargaining. Concerns about the difficulties involved in first contract negotiations were the impetus for the MMC statute’s enactment.

Further, the court was unpersuaded by the employer’s claim that the MMC statute was unconstitutionally arbitrary because of the “lack of any nexus between the statutory purpose and the distinctions drawn by any individual mediator.” Rather, the court observed that the purpose of the MMC statute is to promote collective bargaining and ensure stability in the agricultural workforce. Individualized determinations are rationally related to the legislature’s legitimate interest to ensure that CBAs are tailored to the unique circumstances of each employer. Having rejected the employer’s facial constitutional challenges, the court concluded that the MMC statute was constitutional.

Delegation of legislative authority. The state high court also disagreed with the appeal court’s holding that the MMC statute improperly delegated legislative authority in violation of the California Constitution. Rather, the legislature may properly delegate some quasi-legislative or rulemaking authority. An unconstitutional delegation occurs only when a legislative body (1) leaves the resolution of fundamental policy issues to others, or (2) fails to provide adequate direction for the implementation of that policy. Here, the MMC process did not suffer from either defect. The fundamental policy determination was made by the legislature when it decided to grant agricultural workers in the state the rights of self-organization and collective bargaining. Further, the MMC statute did not fail to provide adequate direction for its implementation.

Abandonment of bargaining unit. Additionally, the state high court ruled that agricultural employers may not defend against a union’s MMC request by showing that the union abandoned its status as bargaining representative. The court pointed out that the purpose of the MMC statute was to revive long-dormant relationships between agricultural employers and labor unions in order to facilitate the adoption of first collective bargaining agreements. Moreover, the ALRA contains a comprehensive set of protections for employees who no longer wish to be represented by the certified union. Thus, in the face of the strong legislative policy against employer participation in the union selection process, the court concluded that the ALRB did not abuse its discretion when it declined to consider the employer’s abandonment argument.

Companion case. The California Supreme Court also ruled in a companion case, Tri-Fanucchi Farms v. ALRB. In Tri-Fanucchi the employer also argued that the union abandoned its employees for more than two decades absence, and thus forfeited its status as bargaining representative. For the reasons set forth in the Gerawan decision, the high court held that the appeals court correctly rejected the employer’s assertion of an abandonment defense. It explained that the ALRA does not permit an employer to “unilaterally declare that it will refuse to engage with the union because it believes the union has abandoned its employees.” However, the high court reversed the appeals court with regard to the reversed make-whole award. With respect to that ruling, the high court concluded that the appeals court did not afford the ALRB sufficient deference as to make-whole relief and improperly exercised the board’s remedial authority.

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