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Major agricultural firm sues California over farmworker unionization law

JULIE WATSON and AMY TAXIN
May 13, 2024

SAN DIEGO (AP) -- One of California's most influential agricultural companies filed a lawsuit Monday against the state to stop a contentious law to help farmworkers unionize that Democratic Gov. Gavin Newsom reluctantly signed two years ago after pressure from the White House.

The action by the Wonderful Co. comes as it battles the United Farm Workers over a newly formed UFW local of 640 workers at one of its businesses. The $6 billion company founded by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, who have donated to President Joe Biden and Newsom, makes a host of products recognizable to most grocery store shoppers, including Halos mandarin oranges, Wonderful Pistachios, POM Wonderful pomegranate juice and Fiji Water brands.

Farmworkers aren't covered by federal rules for labor organizing in the United States. But California, which harvests much of the country's produce, enacted a law and created a special board in 1975 to protect their right to unionize. That came after the storied work of Cesar Chavez and Dolores Huerta to organize farmworkers across California under what later became the United Farm Workers.

But farmworker unionization has dropped precipitously in the years since, and today few such workers are organized in California.

The new law lets farmworkers unionize by collecting a majority of signatures without holding an election at a polling place -- a condition proponents say protects workers from employers applying pressure or trying to retaliate against employees who vote to unionize. A union is formed if more than half of workers sign an authorization card.

Wonderful argues the law is unconstitutional by going too far in cutting employers out of the process.

Newsom's office said it was reviewing the lawsuit before responding and included his statement from when he signed the legislation that "California's farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace."

Farm industry leaders have argued the lack of a secret ballot under the law makes workers vulnerable to coercion by unions and the elections susceptible to fraud. Wonderful said under the prior system, employers and union representatives were present at polling places to ensure a transparent process.

So far, four unions have formed under the new law. No other company has taken any legal action. Wonderful said it is best equipped to spearhead the battle since other companies are much smaller.

The law does not require union authorization cards to be dated or that an employee identify his or her employer, Wonderful said in its lawsuit.

Wonderful said under the law there is no independent verification process to prove majority support for a union, violating due process rights.

Wonderful said it also is asking Kern County Superior Court to issue an injunction to stop the law from being enforced until the court rules on its claim that it's unconstitutional.

Wonderful is up against the clock.

Under the law, once a union is certified, employers must enter into collective bargaining within 90 days, Wonderful said in its lawsuit. That would be June 3 for the newly formed union at Wonderful Nurseries in Wasco, Calif., that was certified by the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

Wonderful filed a complaint with the board, saying its workers didn't want a union. The company says many employees thought the cards they signed were to access $600 payments under a federal pandemic relief program administered by the UFW, the largest farmworker union in the U.S. The UFW denied the allegation.

The UFW called the lawsuit "unfortunate but not surprising." The union said that on April 22 the Agricultural Labor Relations Board filed an unfair labor practice charge against Wonderful, accusing it of obligating workers to attend a meeting to discuss revoking their signatures on the authorization cards they used to form the union.

"Wonderful Nurseries now wants to get rid of the law that protects farm workers," said UFW spokesperson Elizabeth Strater.

The case is being played out before an administrative law judge who is taking testimony from workers during a weekslong hearing.

Wonderful Nurseries contends the board has failed to ensure an honest process for the unit's 60 permanent employees and as many as 1,500 seasonal workers. The company's only workers to unionize are at Wonderful Nurseries, which grows table grapes and wine grape vines as well as other plants. The company has roughly 10,000 employees, according to its website.

Wonderful said its employees are paid well and the 1975 protections have worked.

Before Newsom in 2022 signed the new law, he and his two predecessors had vetoed similar legislation over concerns about the voting process. The Democratic governor had announced plans to veto it again in 2022, but he reversed course after Biden announced support for the change. He signed it on condition that another method of forming a union, through mail-in ballots, was later removed.

Biden, who keeps a bust of Chavez in the Oval Office, said in a statement in 2022 that "in the state with the largest population of farmworkers, the least we owe them is an easier path to make a free and fair choice to organize a union."

_____

Taxin reported from Orange County, Calif.

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