Wonderful sues to halt law that made it easier to unionize farmworkers

The Wonderful Co. is escalating its battle against unionization of its job sites, looking to halt a new state law intended to streamline the farmworker unionization process. The move comes two months after the United Farm Workers utilized the provision to become the collective bargaining representative for employees of the company’s massive grapevine nursery in Kern County.

Wonderful, the $6 billion agricultural powerhouse owned by Stewart and Lynda Resnick, said Monday it is suing the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, challenging the constitutionality of the state’s so-called card-check system, which Gov. Gavin Newsom signed into law in 2022. Under its provisions, a union can organize farmworkers by inviting them to sign authorization cards at off-site meetings, without notifying an employer, rather than voting by secret ballot at a designated polling place.

The company, whose portfolio includes such well-known brands as FIJI Water, Wonderful Pistachios and POM Wonderful, alleges in its lawsuit that the law deprives employers of due process on multiple fronts. Among them: forcing a company to enter a collective bargaining agreement even if it has formally appealed the ALRB’s certification of a union vote and presented what it believes is evidence that the voting process was fraudulent.

Wonderful said it was compelled to file its lawsuit now because, under the card-check law, the company faces a June 3 deadline to reach a collective bargaining agreement or have one dictated by the ALRB.

“Having been compelled into a constitutionally unlawful procedure that imposes a constitutionally illegitimate certification, Wonderful has no meaningful way to obtain plain, speedy or complete relief other than through an order of this Court declaring that, on its face, [this section of the labor code] is unconstitutional,” the lawsuit said.

The lawsuit, to be heard in Kern County Superior Court, seeks to enjoin the ALRB from enforcing the card-check law’s provisions.

The ALRB did not immediately respond to the The Times’ request for comment.

A spokesperson for Newsom’s office said staff members were still reviewing the complaint, but included in the response Newsom’s comments when he signed the legislation. “California’s farmworkers are the lifeblood of our state, and they have the fundamental right to unionize and advocate for themselves in the workplace,” his statement said in part.

UFW spokesperson Elizabeth Strater said the union was not surprised by Wonderful’s move.

“This is an unfortunate tactic, but it’s not surprising,” Strater said. “They’ll do pretty much anything to prevent workers from being empowered.”

William B. Gould IV, a professor of law emeritus at Stanford Law School, described the card-check system as “an excellent statute to challenge” because of the confusion and ambiguity surrounding some of its provisions and the “potential for contacts between organizers and employees” that could raise questions about whether workers were acting with free choice.

While he predicted Wonderful would have a “difficult time” making its case in California, he said the company could be aiming to take its argument to the conservative-leaning U.S. Supreme Court.

“To paraphrase Frank Sinatra, now we’re in a situation where anything goes,” said Gould, who served as chair of the ALRB from 2014 to 2017.

The lawsuit is the latest salvo in what’s been a tumultuous dispute over the UFW’s unionization campaign at the nation’s largest grapevine nursery.

In late February, the union filed a petition with the labor relations board, asserting that a majority of the 600-plus farmworkers at Wonderful Nurseries in Wasco had signed authorization cards and asking that the UFW be certified as their union representative.

Within days, Wonderful hit back with an explosive allegation: The company accused the UFW of baiting farmworkers into signing the authorization cards while helping them apply for $600 in federal relief for farmworkers who labored during the pandemic. And it submitted nearly 150 signed declarations from nursery workers saying they had not understood that by signing the cards they were voting to unionize.

The ALRB acknowledged receiving the worker declarations; nonetheless, the regional director of the labor board moved forward three days later to certify the union’s petition. She has said in subsequent hearings that she felt she had to move quickly under the timeline laid out in the card-check law, and that at the time she did not think the statute authorized her to investigate allegations of misconduct.

Wonderful appealed the certification, alleging the UFW engaged in fraud to obtain employee signatures on authorization cards. The UFW countered that Wonderful had intimidated workers into making false statements and had brought in a labor consultant with a reputation as a union buster to manipulate their emotions in the weeks that followed.

A hearing on Wonderful’s objections has been playing out before an independent hearing examiner for the past three weeks. The lawsuit seeks to pause the hearing, pending the outcome of the card-check suit.

The UFW, meanwhile, is pursuing its own legal action against Wonderful. The union filed a formal complaint of unfair labor practices with the ALRB, accusing Wonderful of holding mandatory meetings where company leaders urged employees to reject the union and misrepresented the union’s intentions.

Following an investigation, ALRB General Counsel Julia Montgomery issued a formal complaint in April alleging Wonderful committed three unfair labor practices in its interactions with employees in the days following the UFW’s petition to represent nursery workers. The complaint alleges the company coerced workers to attend meetings and unlawfully assisted them in drafting declarations to revoke their authorization cards.

The general counsel’s complaint, similar to an indictment, will be heard by an administrative law judge, and both sides will have an opportunity to present evidence.

This article is part of The Times’ equity reporting initiative, funded by the James Irvine Foundation, exploring the challenges facing low-income workers and the efforts being made to address California’s economic divide.

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