May 9, 2018

California should stop picking on fruit growers

By Erin Wilcox Attorney

In the private sector, employers and unions usually have the freedom to agree to a contract, or not, without any government interference.

Not so in California, where the state’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) has the power to hijack negotiations between two private parties and write a contract with whatever terms it wants.  This contract (which is really a mini labor law since it is imposed and enforced by the state) applies only to a single employer and its employees.

This is not how laws are supposed to work.  Laws should apply equally to everyone–they are not a tool for those in power to single others out.  Our Constitution, and particularly the Equal Protection Clause, makes this clear.

Gerawan Farming, Inc., a family-owned company that grows grapes and stone fruit in California’s San Joaquin Valley, is a longtime industry leader.  It employs over 5,000 farm workers each year and pays them the highest wages in the industry, with flexible policies so employees can work elsewhere in the off-season without losing their seniority at Gerawan.

That all changed in 2013, when the United Farm Workers union showed up at Gerawan and had ALRB write a new contract.  Gerawan didn’t have a say in the contract and didn’t agree to it, but under California law that doesn’t matter.

The new state-imposed contract makes life worse for everyone–everyone except the union, that is.  Employees take home less money because they have to hand over 3% of their gross pay to the union.  If an employee refuses to pay the union, Gerawan must fire him–even if he’s Gerawan’s best employee.  Employees who work elsewhere during the off-season lose their seniority when they get back to Gerawan, leaving fifteen-year veterans below first-year rookies.  Worst of all, employees are forbidden from going on strike, which is by far the best weapon farm workers have for protesting working conditions.

All of these rules apply only to Gerawan Farming, which has gone from a company that treated its employees well to one that is required by law to treat them badly.  No other agricultural employer, no matter how similar to Gerawan, suffers under these same rules.

Gerawan has asked the U.S. Supreme Court to review California’s unfair and unconstitutional scheme that harms businesses and their employees while lining the union’s pockets.

Last week, Pacific Legal Foundation urged the Court to take on this extremely important case.  Representing the Cato Institute, the California Farm Bureau Federation, California Fresh Fruit Association, the Western Growers Association, and Ventura County Agricultural Association, PLF told the Court that this issue affects more than just Gerawan Farming and its employees–it can easily spread across the country, leaving governments free to pick on anyone they want.

The Equal Protection Clause of the Fourteenth Amendment stands between powerful governments and individual citizens, so that no one is singled out for different treatment under the law.  California has clearly forgotten this, and it’s time for the Supreme Court to remind it.

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