By Jerry Brown and Miles Reiter
Jerry Brown was the governor of California from 1975 to 1983 and 2011 to 2019. Miles Reiter is a berry grower and the chairman and chief executive of Driscoll’s.
This week, in the case of Cedar Point Nursery v. Hassid, the U.S. Supreme Court heard arguments about a historic California law that gave farmworkers the right to vote in secret ballot elections on whether they wanted to be represented by a union.
We know that law — the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act — well. Forty-six years ago, one of us was signing it as governor of California and the other was a strawberry farmer along the Central Coast of California.
We came from different perspectives then but share a common view now: The law has fulfilled its promise to bring about labor peace by giving voice to California’s farmworkers. That law, and the self-determination it brings, should not be weakened or undermined.
In the 1930s, as part of the New Deal, Congress created the National Labor Relations Board to govern the process by which workers could decide if they wished to be represented by a union. Congress declared that U.S. policy was to eliminate “substantial obstructions” to the free flow of commerce, and to protect rights to self-organization and freedom of association. Notably, Congress failed to extend these fundamental workplace rights to farmworkers.
The unionizing campaigns in California’s agricultural fields in the 1960s and 1970s were marked by the substantial obstructions that Congress sought to eliminate in other sectors of the economy. There was violence in rural communities and chaos in the fields; grapes and lettuce were boycotted. Consumers and celebrities alike demanded union contracts for farmworkers, and the economic clash dramatized the issue. But the clash obscured a fundamental question: What did the farmworker want?
The 1975 California law was bold and unprecedented because it gave real choice to farmworkers for the first time. Procedures, modeled in part on federal law, permitted farmworkers to decide whether they wished to be represented by a union, and also set rules for management and worker relations. And with the secret ballot, farmworkers could vote for or against unionizing, free of reprisal or coercion.
In the current proceeding, today’s Supreme Court is reaching back to that law 46 years after its passage and considering if a provision that allows union organizers limited access to agricultural fields in order to reach workers should be outlawed. (The California Supreme Court upheld the provision in 1976.)
This “access rule” has long accommodated employees — many of whom speak no English — without burdening employers. And it facilitates a transparent competition for the hearts and minds of farmworkers.
Neither of us is a fan of unnecessary regulation. And the procedures adopted by California’s labor relations board can at times seem complicated. Nevertheless, the mere existence of these rules has quelled the controversy that previously marked farmworker organizing campaigns. By distinguishing fair from unfair labor practices, employers and unions know the rules. And it is the rules that bring clarity.
Our purpose is not to argue the jurisprudence on “administrative takings” or the reach of federal labor law. We write to stand up for our state’s unique Agricultural Labor Relations Act, with a heartfelt reminder of what labor relations were like in the fields of California before this law.
A generation after it empowered farmworkers and calmed the turmoil in the fields, the law is now under threat. In the midst of a pandemic and with renewed understanding of the essential role that farmworkers play, the U.S. Supreme Court should recognize that this special law has given voice to men and women who do the work that feeds America.