The California Supreme Court has upheld a law that labor activists say is key to helping farmworkers improve their working conditions.
The 2002 law allows California to order unions and farming companies to reach contracts if the sides are at an impasse. A mediator can impose a contract on the employer that sets wages and other working conditions.
The court said Monday that the law didn't violate the state Constitution.
The ruling came in a lawsuit pitting one of the largest U.S. fruit farms, Gerawan Farming, against the United Farm Workers of America, the union that Cesar Chavez helped launch.
Labor activists say the law prevented employers from stalling contract talks to avoid a deal. Opponents called it government overreach that deprived employers and workers of any say over wages and other terms of employment.
Unions can seek mediation 90 days after demanding to bargain on behalf of workers — even if the vote to unionize occurred decades earlier in some cases.
"The argument when it was enacted was that workers would get all fired up about having a union to represent them and they would vote for the union but then the employer would delay and the workers would lose their enthusiasm," said Philip Martin, a farm labor expert at the University of California, Davis.
In court documents filed with the state Supreme Court, the UFW says a previous law had failed to achieve the state's goal of providing millions of farm workers with the right to bargain collectively with employers.
As of 2002, less than half of farm employers whose workers voted to join a union since 1975 had agreed to a labor contract, according to the UFW.
UFW won the right to represent Gerawan workers in 1990, but the two sides did not agree to a contract. At the union's request, the state Agricultural Relations Board in 2013 ordered Gerawan and the UFW to enter into binding mediation, and the mediator eventually crafted a contract that was approved by the board.
"This is literally government stepping in and determining the wages and working conditions of a business and enforcing it on the employer and employees without any say whatsoever," said Dan Gerawan, who runs Gerawan Farming in California's Central Valley — one of the nation's most productive farming regions.
A state appeals court ruled 3-0 two years ago that the mediation and conciliation law was unconstitutional because it failed to provide mediators with any policy goals or standards and would result in a different set of rules for different employers.
Martin said 50 to 100 other farms may find themselves in the same position as Gerawan.
This story has been updated.