Capitol Alert

Fresno County growers claim ‘arbitrary legislative targeting’ in late-session bill

Farm workers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field near Huron, CA in Fresno county on Thursday, May 21, 2015.
Farm workers pull up irrigation drip lines in a garlic field near Huron, CA in Fresno county on Thursday, May 21, 2015. rbenton@sacbee.com

In a lawsuit challenging a multimillion-dollar farm labor deal struck by Gov. Jerry Brown and the Legislature last year, two Fresno County growers said Friday that they were illegally carved out of the agreement.

In the lawsuit, filed in U.S. District Court in Sacramento, Fowler Packing Co. and Gerawan Farming Inc. said they faced “intentional and arbitrary legislative targeting” in a pact involving back payments for thousands of employees for rest periods and other work hours. In exchange for making back payments, Assembly Bill 1513 offered farmers throughout the state protection from lawsuits – and potentially far higher penalties – for past failure to pay.

Yet the bill, passed on the Legislature’s final day, contained exemptions effectively excluding Fowler and Gerawan, among other growers, from the arrangement – a provision to keep the influential United Farm Workers union from opposing the deal. The UFW has long feuded with Gerawan over employee representation, and a lawyer for the union was among attorneys listed on class-action lawsuits against both Gerawan and Fowler.

“From my perspective, if we’re going to create a grand compromise that helps most growers and helps most workers, you don’t want to let it get blown up because there’s somebody who’s a potential bad actor,” the bill’s author, Assemblyman Das Williams, D-Santa Barbara, told The Sacramento Bee at the time.

In their lawsuit, Fowler and Gerawan ask the court to declare provisions exempting them from the agreement unconstitutional, saying the agreement violates equal protection law.

“AB 1513 was reverse-engineered via a last minute legislative ‘gut and amend’ designed to punish Fowler and Gerawan,” the companies argued. “The targeting was in response to demands by the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) that these growers be excluded from AB 1513’s ‘safe harbor’ provisions as the price for the UFW’s non-opposition to this legislation.”

AB 1513 was reverse-engineered via a last minute legislative ‘gut and amend’ designed to punish Fowler and Gerawan.

Lawsuit by Fresno County growers against Brown administration

The UFW did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The Brown administration has previously described the agreement as a landmark deal resulting from “good-faith negotiations and compromise and understanding.”

AB 1513 served to clarify pay for piece-rate workers throughout the state, including many fruit pickers, truck drivers, cable installers and other workers.

Williams put estimated back payments to workers at about $200 million, while farm industry officials said their liability could have reached $1 billion or more.

David Siders: 916-321-1215, @davidsiders

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