How can the Legislature fix a problem when the “fix” is in

Assemblyman Jim Patterson
Assembly Member Jim Patterson represents the 23rd District, which includes portions of Fresno and Tulare counties.

We expect our courts to call foul when legislators pass laws that cross the constitutional line. Thousands of farmworkers are hoping that our highest court will allow them to have the same rights that all other workers in our state and country have, and strike down California’s misguided experiment in forced contracting.

The California Supreme Court is set to decide whether the state’s experiment in forced agricultural labor contracts violates the constitutional safeguard of equal protection. That case, heard in September, was brought by Fresno-based peach grower Gerawan Farming, one of the largest employers in my district. In 2012, the United Farm Workers invoked a 2002 law that empowers the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) to draft and impose a “contract” governing virtually every aspect of the working lives of thousands of Gerawan employees. That non-negotiated “contract” would be forced on employees without their consent, and Gerawan would be required to fire workers who refuse to give up three percent of their pay to the UFW.

Gerawan’s workers say this legislative experiment to foster labor “stability” and “peace in the fields” does not work. For five years they have been asking the ALRB for the right to decide for themselves whether the UFW will speak for them at the bargaining table. The UFW last stood for election at Gerawan in 1990. Many of the company’s workers were not born at that time. None of them had any reason to believe that the UFW represented their interests since the union abandoned them for over two decades.

When the UFW resurfaced in 2012 to demand that the ALRB write and impose a contract on Gerawan and its employees, the workers organized one of the largest strikes in California agricultural history. They weren’t protesting Gerawan. They were standing up to the union and the labor agency created to protect worker rights.

What did the ALRB do in response to this worker-led revolt? When hundreds of Gerawan farmworkers traveled to Sacramento to plead their case, the ALRB Chairman thanked them for coming, handed them a generic informational pamphlet, and showed them the door. When Gerawan workers and the company’s owner visited the State Capitol to petition against a UFW-sponsored bill that would accelerate forced contracting, the ALRB charged Gerawan with attempting to undermine the union. When a majority of Gerawan’s workers asked for the right to vote, the ALRB conducted an election, impounded the ballots, and imposed a contract that would bar pickets, protests, and boycotts. Four years after that election, the ballots remain uncounted.

During the September argument before the Supreme Court, the ALRB lawyer told the justices that Gerawan’s employees “could have filed a charge” against the UFW for abandoning them, or “could have sought a decertification election.” He did not mention that the employees did both of these things, and that the ALRB dismissed the charges, and refused to count the ballots. When asked by the court how forced contracting vindicates worker rights, the ALRB claimed that entrenching unions and imposing dues on workers promotes “freedom from interference of the employer in the choices the employees make.” That Orwellian answer begs a different question: Who is protecting the workers from the ALRB’s interference in their right to choose?

I asked this question two years ago when I introduced a bill to give workers a voice in this forced contracting process. That bill was shot down before it reached the Assembly floor, leaving 200 workers who pleaded their case before the Labor and Employment Committee to ask a different question: Why did they give up a day’s pay to witness this farcical display of democracy? It taught these hardworking folks a painful lesson about politics in Sacramento – it is impossible for the Legislature to fix a problem when the “fix” is in.

Assemblyman Jim Patterson, R-Fresno, represents the 23rd Assembly District in the California Legislature, which includes communities in Fresno and Tulare County.

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