Thursday, November 29, 2001
C.A. Clarifies Right to Fire Worker Over Coercion in Labor Dispute
By a MetNews Staff Writer
An employee who applies coercive tactics against fellow workers during a labor dispute can be fired even if there is no actual violence, the Sixth District Court of Appeal has ruled.
The court Tuesday directed the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to reconsider its order requiring Coastal Berry Company to reinstate, with backpay, seven employees who were fired for their actions in connection with a 1998 labor protest.
The seven are allied with the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee, a group opposed to the United Farm Workers. The committee won certification last year as the representative of Coastal Berry’s 800 strawberry pickers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, where the 1998 incidents occurred.
At the same time, the UFW was certified to represent 700 Coastal Berry workers in Ventura County, gaining its first major toehold in the strawberry fields of California. The split certification was agreed to in order to settle UFW challenges to a statewide vote of Coastal Berry pickers in which the committee claimed victory.
Coastal Berry, the largest employer of strawberry pickers in the country, was once owned by the Monsanto conglomerate. But Monsanto, under pressure from the UFW and its political allies, sold the company to local owners in 1997 with a proviso that they would not interfere in unionization efforts.
In June and July 1998, supporters of the committee led two demonstrations in Watsonville and one at a ranch near the Santa Cruz-Monterey County line, protesting what they claimed was company pressure on workers to support the UFW.
The ranch demonstration was broken up by law enforcement officers from both counties after committee supporters turned into what a sheriff’s deputy later described as a “lynch mob” and began attacking UFW supporters. According to testimony later given to an administrative law judge, officers were pelted with rocks as they led a leader of the demonstration, Jose Guadelupe Fernandez, from the scene in a patrol car.
At a meeting the next day, company president David Smith agreed not to discipline the workers involved in the events at the ranch if they went back to work. The company, however, subsequently fired 12 of the protesters, 11 of whom—including Fernandez—filed unfair labor practice charges with the ALRB.
The company defended itself before the ALRB, accusing the fired employees of destroying packed strawberries during the protest and assaulting fellow workers. It also accused two of the protesters with blocking access to company property during one of the Watsonville demonstrations and another of throwing stacks of cartons.
The ALJ, after hearing testimony from several witnesses and viewing a videotape of part of the protest at the ranch, concluded that the company was bound by its agreement not to fire the protesters. The ALJ concluded that even if the agreement wasn’t binding, all but one of the workers—a man who had assaulted three UFW supporters—were protected by Labor Code Sec. 1152, which allows farm workers to engage in “concerted activity for mutual aid and protection.”
The ALRB found that the agreement not to fire anyone was contrary to public policy. But it also concluded that eight of the workers had engaged in protected activity and could not be fired.
Coastal Berry challenged the ruling as to seven of the workers by petitioning the Court of Appeal for review, and Justice Franklin Elia Tuesday generally sided with the company.
Once the board held that the company wasn’t bound by an agreement not to fire anyone, the justice said, it “should have returned to its previous conclusion, that the conduct at the ranch was unprotected activity.”
The board, he explained, had erred in relying on now-discredited authority that verbal abuse and threats in the course of labor activity, unaccompanied by actual violence or menacing gestures, is insufficient for termination.
The present-day rule, Elia explained, is that a striker may be fired for “any expression of hostility that may tend to coerce or intimidate nonstriking employees.”
The justice acknowledged that some of the employees are still likely to prevail under that standard. But if workers threw packed crates or objects at others during the course of the protest, that would be enough to support the company’s actions, he said.
The burden of proof, the justice added, is on the workers to show that their actions were protected, not on the ALRB general counsel to show that they weren’t.
Elia went on to conclude that the ALRB was in error in ruling that even if a worker engaged in unprotected conduct by throwing berry crates, he could not be fired because other protestors also threw crates but weren’t fired. Claims of disparate treatment are “irrelevant to this case,” the jurist said.
The case is Coastal Berry Company v. Agricultural Labor Relations Board, 01 S.O.S. 5660.
Copyright 2001, Metropolitan News Company