Highland Ranch v. Agricultural Labor Relations Bd.

Decision Date10 September 1981
Docket NumberR,AFL-CI
Citation633 P.2d 949,29 Cal.3d 848,176 Cal.Rptr. 753
CourtCalifornia Supreme Court
Parties, 633 P.2d 949, 95 Lab.Cas. P 55,372 HIGHLAND RANCH, Petitioner, v. AGRICULTURAL LABOR RELATIONS BOARD, Respondent; UNITED FARM WORKERS OF AMERICA,eal Party in Interest. L.A. 31359.

Robert P. Roy, Dressler, Stoll, Quesenbery, Laws & Barsamian, Dressler, Stoll, Hersh & Quesenbery, Charley M. Stoll, Marion I. Quesenbery and Pieter Van Leuven, Newport Beach, for petitioner.

Ellen Lake, Manuel M. Medeiros, Daniel G. Stone, Edwin F. Lowry and Jorge A. Leon, Sacramento, for respondent.

George T. Tichy II, Robert K. Carrol and Littler, Mendelson, Fastiff & Tichy, San Francisco, as amici curiae on behalf of respondent.

Dianna Lyons, Daniel A. Garcia, Marco E. Lopez, Carlos M. Alcala, Francis E. Fernandez, Carmen S. Flores, Federico G. Chavez, Ellen J. Eggers, Jerome Cohen, Keene, Sanford N. Nathan, William H. Carder, San Francisco, Tom Dalzell, Salinas, and Ellen Greenstone, Keene, for real party in interest.

TOBRINER, Acting Chief Justice.

In this case Highland Ranch (Highland), an agricultural employer, seeks review of a final order of the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), finding Highland guilty of a number of unfair labor practices arising out of a series of incidents which occurred in the latter half of 1977, shortly after the United Farm Workers of America, AFL-CIO (UFW or union) had apparently won a decisive victory in a representation election held among Highland's employees. Although Highland has objected to a number of the ALRB's unfair labor practice findings, the most prominent issue raised by Highland concerns the propriety of the ALRB's determination that Highland was guilty of an unfair labor practice in failing either to provide pertinent information to or to bargain with the union during the time period between the union's apparent election victory and the ALRB's formal certification of the union.

In reaching its decision, the ALRB relied upon a series of federal authorities which hold that, under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA or Board), an employer acts "at its peril" in undertaking unilateral action altering the working conditions of its employees during the pendency of an election challenge. Under these federal decisions, an employer may be found guilty of an unfair labor practice in failing to bargain prior to effecting such a change in working conditions if, as in the instant case, the union's election victory is ultimately sustained. The ALRB followed these decisions in concluding that Highland had committed an unfair labor practice in the instant case.

Highland argues, however, that the federal precedents upon which the ALRB relied should not be controlling under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA) in light of Labor Code section 1153, subdivision (f), a provision of the ALRA which has no counterpart in the NLRA. 1 Highland maintains that section 1153, subdivision (f) prohibits an employer from bargaining with a union that is not formally certified under any circumstances. Accordingly, Highland asserts that the ALRB could not properly find that it had committed an unfair labor practice in failing to bargain with the union prior to the union's actual certification.

The ALRB rejected Highland's proposed interpretation of section 1153, subdivision (f) as incompatible with the legislative purpose underlying the section, finding that the Legislature had enacted that provision simply to preclude an employer from entering into a "sweetheart arrangement" with a union that had not been selected by its employees in a representation election. In light of this purpose, the Board concluded that the section could not properly be interpreted to prohibit an employer from bargaining with an apparently victorious union during the pendency of an election challenge.

For the reasons discussed below, we have concluded that the ALRB properly held Highland responsible for its failure to inform or bargain with the union in this case, but we base our conclusion upon narrower grounds than those relied upon by the ALRB. As we shall explain, in view of the particular facts of the instant case, we have concluded that we need not determine whether as under the NLRA an employer under the ALRA acts "at its peril" whenever it takes unilateral action altering the working conditions of employees during the pendency of an election challenge, without regard to the reasonableness and good faith of the employer's doubts as to the validity of the union's election victory.

As we shall see, in the present case Highland failed to inform or bargain with the union at a time at which Highland could entertain no reasonable doubt that the union would be certified as its employees' bargaining representative, because the imminent certification of the union was simply a ministerial act. Under these circumstances, we conclude that it would clearly defeat the purposes of the act to permit an employer to invoke the provisions of section 1153, subdivision (f) as a shield to immunize its failure to bargain with the union over the impending changes in the workers' employment status. Accordingly, we uphold the ALRB's unfair labor practice finding in this case.

1. The facts and proceedings below.

For many years prior to 1977, Highland was engaged in farming operations at a 647 acre ranch leased from the United States Marine Corps at Camp Pendleton in Orange County. Highland grew tomatoes, cauliflower, cabbage, cucumbers and corn at the ranch, and operated a packing shed on the premises. Many of the agricultural laborers who worked at the ranch lived in a rent-free labor camp owned and run by Highland.

Some time in the spring of 1977, the UFW began an organizational drive among Highland's employees. As the months passed, the union's campaign activity increased and, early in June 1977, Highland, with knowledge of the union's activity, announced a new set of work rules which increased existing benefits and created some new benefits. Thereafter, the union's organizational campaign activity continued unabated and on July 21, 1977, the UFW filed a petition for certification, triggering the ALRA's election process. Pursuant to the speedy election procedures prescribed by the act, the ALRB directed that an election be held on July 28, 1977.

On the day of the election, Highland's officers sought to deny the ALRB's election officials access to the ranch. When the public officials insisted on their lawful right to conduct the election, Highland had the agency officials arrested in the presence of its workers. At the subsequent ALRB proceedings, the Board found that Highland engaged in serious election day misconduct; Highland has not sought review of the unfair labor practice findings relating to that misconduct.

Despite Highland's interference, the representation election was held on July 28. No other union contested the UFW in the election, and, pursuant to statutory directive, the workers were given a ballot choice between the UFW and "no labor organization." (§ 1156.3, subd. (a).) Of 203 ballots cast in the election, 187 were in favor of the UFW, 14 were in favor of no union, and 2 resulted in unresolved challenges.

Under section 1156.3, subdivision (d) if no objections are filed within five days of a representation election "the board shall certify the election." In this case, however, four days after the election Highland filed a petition with the ALRB seeking to have the election set aside on two grounds. First, Highland argued that the ALRB lacked jurisdiction to hold the election because the ranch was located on property leased from the federal government. Second, Highland maintained that the Board agents had committed acts of misconduct by interfering with a fair election.

On November 2, 1977, three months after the election challenges had been filed, the executive secretary of the ALRB issued an order dismissing the challenges on the ground that the supporting declarations, even if true, did not set forth facts which would constitute grounds to deny certification to the union. (See Cal.Admin.Code, tit. 8, § 20365, subds. (c), (e), (h); J.R. Norton Co. v. Agricultural Labor Relations Bd. (1979) 26 Cal.3d 1, 160 Cal.Rptr. 710, 603 P.2d 1306, 12-18.) Under the Board's regulations, Highland had the right to obtain ALRB review of the executive secretary's dismissal of its objections by filing a request for review within five days of receiving service of the dismissal. (Cal.Admin.Code, tit. 8, §§ 20365, subds. (e), (h); 20393, subd. (a).) Highland, however, did not seek review of the dismissal of its election challenges, and thereafter, as a matter of course (Cal.Admin.Code, tit. 8, § 20380), 2 on November 29, 1977, the Board certified the election and the UFW as the exclusive bargaining representative of Highland's agricultural employees.

As noted at the outset, the principal legal issue in this case concerns the consequences which should attach to certain actions of Highland during the period between the election on July 28, 1977, and the Board's official certification of the UFW on November 29, 1977.

In late September 1977, less than two months after the election, Highland's president contacted Deardoff-Jackson Company, a separate California corporation engaged in farming operations, to inquire whether Deardoff-Jackson was interested in purchasing the Highland farming operation. Deardoff-Jackson indicated its interest and by mid-November Highland and Deardoff-Jackson had had some 12 substantive discussions about the sale of the ranch. By this time, Deardoff-Jackson had formed San Clemente Ranch, Ltd. (San Clemente), a limited partnership with Deardoff-Jackson as general partner, to purchase and operate the ranch. Under the agreement between Highland and San Clemente, San Clemente obtained the full assignment of Highland's land lease and purchased virtually all of Highland's ranch facilities,...

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