Jerry Brown's major achievement in his first year as governor in 1975 was the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, creating a first-in-the-nation mechanism for the United Farm Workers union to seek contracts with growers.
It did not, contrary to expectations, result in the massive unionization of field workers. Thirty-eight years later, the reasons are still being debated. UFW and its allies contend that it's been unfair stalling by farmers; growers blame the union's indifference to doing business and its internal strife.
The farm labor issue, therefore, is still simmering, even if economic circumstances have changed. Some segments of the nation's largest agricultural industry have declined – fresh fruit, for one – while others have flourished, such as wine grapes and tree nuts. And the once-abundant supply of farm labor has shrunk, largely because of tighter controls on illegal migration from Mexico.
Two years ago, after vetoing one version, Brown signed an overhaul of the farm labor law aimed at making it easier for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to crack down on employer misconduct and speeding up mandatory mediation when an election doesn't produce a contract.
The author of that bill, Senate President Pro Tem Darrell Steinberg, says he wants to expand the mediation tool further by applying it when one contract expires but a successor contract is stalled.
Meanwhile, however, a sharp dispute has arisen over the UFW's use of mediation to obtain contracts on unionization elections that occurred many years, or even decades, earlier.
The union has gained recent contracts with two San Joaquin Valley farming corporations but is locked in battle with others, including the huge Gerawan Farming operations near Fresno.
Gerawan complains that its 3,000 workers shouldn't be bound by a representation election that was conducted 22 years ago among workers who are no longer on its payroll.
Gerawan says that it tried to negotiate a contract after the election, but that the UFW walked away from the talks after one session. Three months ago, the union sent a letter to Gerawan, demanding a contract and invoking mediation if there was no agreement in 90 days.
The issue arose obliquely on Monday when the Senate Rules Committee, chaired by Steinberg, approved Brown's nomination of Herbert Mason, a retired Fresno professor of farm labor relations, to the farm labor board.
Mason said afterward that Gerawan "stirred up a hornet's nest," but that since there's no statute of limitations on representation elections, the UFW is within its legal rights.
Nor is Gerawan likely to win its case in the Legislature.
Steinberg said he wants the farm labor law "implemented in a robust way" and would leave the mediation issue to the board, rather than change the law.