I.       Introduction. 

Unlike federal labor law, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA or Act) authorizes agricultural workers to form unions and engage in collective bargaining.  If the parties cannot reach agreement on the terms of the contract, the Act requires mediation.  If mediation is unsuccessful, the ALRA requires the mediator to dictate the terms of the contract and impose them on the parties without either’s consent.  The California Supreme Court upheld the Act in the face of numerous constitutional challenges.  The employer has now filed a petition for certiorari.

II.       Factual Background.

The employer, Gerawan Farming, Inc., is the largest grower of peaches, plums and nectarines in the United States. It employs approximately 5,000 workers.  In 1990, the United Farmworkers of America (UFW) was certified as the bargaining representative for Gerawan workers.  The parties did some bargaining through 1995 without reaching agreement.  The UFW then vanished for the next 17 years before resurfacing in 2012 and requesting further bargaining sessions.

The parties engaged in several negotiating sessions, although the UFW never put an economic proposal on the table.  In March 2013, the UFW invoked mandatory mediation.  The ALRA has three prerequisites to such mediation:  (1) the parties have not reached agreement for at least a year after the union requested to bargain; (2) the parties have not previously had a binding contract; and (3) the employer has been found to have committed an unfair labor practice.  Here, the unfair labor practice was committed before the union won certification in 1990, 22 years before it sought mediation.

In the meantime, a majority of Gerawan employees twice petitioned the agency that administers the ALRA to decertify the UFW.  The agency ordered a secret vote after the second petition, but refused to count the ballots on account of an alleged unfair labor practice by Gerawan months before the election.

The mediation being unsuccessful, the mediator proceeded to impose terms and conditions on the parties.  Neither Gerawan nor its employees were happy with the contract.  Most workers experienced a reduction in take home pay, because the raises they received were less than the union dues imposed by the mediator.  The contract also disrupted Gerawan’s quality control program and a seniority system that had worked well for both Gerawan and its employees.

Gerawan sought judicial review of the mediator’s ruling in the California Court of Appeals.  That Court found that the ALRA violated the California Constitution by unlawfully delegating legislative power to an administrative agency.  It also held that the Act violated equal protection, by giving the mediator essentially unrestricted power to impose different contract terms on similarly situated employers.  The Court of Appeals did not reach Gerawan’s argument that the ALRA also violated substantive due process.

The California Supreme Court reversed.  It acknowledged that the Supreme Court of the United States had held compulsory arbitration for private employers violated due process. But it also held that these Lochner-era decisions had been completely repudiated by the Court’s New Deal decisions.  It rejected the equal protection argument on the theory that the Act contained sufficient criteria to limit the discretion of the mediator, including such things as the employer’s financial condition; wages, benefits and terms and conditions of similar operations; and the cost of living in the area.

III.      The Certiorari Petition.

The petition presents three arguments as to why the Act violates the Fourteenth Amendment.  First, Gerawan asserts that compulsory arbitration arbitrarily deprives both it and its employees of liberty and property interests.  Imposing contract terms that neither party wants clearly deprives each of them of an economic interest.  But it also deprives the employees of their rights of free association by denying them the opportunity to decertify the union.  California treats a compelled contract as the same as a collectively bargained one.  Under California law, employees cannot seek decertification until the final year of the contract.

Second, Gerawan argues that the ALRA violates substantive due process, because the three Lochner-era cases (the Wolff trilogy) expressly held that states could not require compulsory arbitration for private companies. Chas. Wolff Packing Co. v. Court of Industrial Relations, 262 U.S. 522 (1923), held that the State of Kansas could not impose a wage schedule on an employer and its union. Dorchy v. State of Kansas, 264 U.S. 286 (1924), held that Kansas could not punish a union official for calling a strike in an effort to secure better terms for union members. Chas. Wolff Packing Co. v. Court of Industrial Relations, 267 U.S. 552 (1925), held that Kansas could not impose maximum hours on the parties.

The petition alleges that the Wolff trilogy remains good law, never having been expressly repudiated by the Supreme Court.  It is true that the initial Wolff opinion relied in part on Adkins v. Children’s Hospital, 261 U.S. 525 (1943), and West Coast Hotel Corp. v. Parrish, 300 U.S. 379 (1937), expressly overruled Adkins.  But Adkins was not the only basis for the Wolff trilogy, and the Supreme Court reserves for itself the right to overrule its own precedents, no matter how “moth eaten” they may be. State Oil Co. v. Khan, 522 U.S. 3, 20 (1997).

Third, Gerawan argues that the compulsory arbitration process violates equal protection, because it allows the mediator to impose on employers and employees whatever terms and conditions he or she pleases.  The criteria that the ALRA sets forth are not binding.  The mediator may give those criteria whatever weight he or she chooses to do so.  The mediator may ignore them entirely.  The result is a standard-free imposition of any terms and conditions the mediator wants.

The State and the UFW initially waived their right to file responsive briefs.  The Court, however, ordered them to respond, which suggests the Justices are taking the petition seriously.