New tool available to resolve labor disputes
Voluntary program promises to solve farm labor disputes
more efficiently and economically

Melissa Hansen
Good Fruit Grower

Resolving farm labor disputes can be costly and time consuming for both employer and worker, especially if attorneys and courts are involved. But now there is an alternative that offers a faster and less expensive approach to settling disagreements.

The State of Washington recently contracted with the Washington State Grange to administer an alternative dispute resolution system for employment disputes between agricultural employers and farm workers. As part of a bipartisan effort to expand funding for the state's legal aid providers, Washington legislators appropriated $100,000 during 2004 to develop and implement a statewide alternative dispute resolution program.

The Washington Grange was the successful bidder in a competitive process conducted by the Department of Community, Trade and Economic Development, Office of Crime Victims Advocacy, the agency that oversees funding for state civil legal aid.

With a long history of helping farmers, the 115-year-old statewide organization represents more than 50,000 membersmore Grangers than any other state. The Washington Grange is headquartered in Olympia, but has facilities in all 39 counties. One of its most recent activities is sponsorship of Measure 872, an initiative that deals with voter choice and state's new primary election system.

While farm labor is a new area for them to be directly involved in, Grange president Terry Hunt said his organization is not working alone.

"We're just the vehicle to put the program in place," Hunt said, adding that an advisory board, with representation from worker advocates, legal services, and other agricultural associations, is providing input in the program's development and implementation.


As the lead organization, the Grange is working collaboratively with the Washington Growers' League, a Yakima-based agricultural employer organization, the United Farm Workers of America union, and two state-funded legal aid programs--the Northwest Justice Project and the Columbia Legal Services.

The five collaborators spent several months developing principles that will guide the alternative dispute resolution system. Attorneys from each group reviewed and negotiated the guidelines before collaborative approval was given.

An important component included in the guiding principles is the agreement that all information discussed during mediation is confidential and can't be used later if the dispute goes to court.

"It was vital to get legal services involved in the coalition," said Mike Gempler, executive director of the Growers League. "It's so critically important to have 'buy in' from all the parties involved. Otherwise, any single party can bow out."


Gempler stresses that the program is "entirely voluntary" and is only an option to what can become a more protracted settlement. "It's meant to provide an option for quicker resolution that saves growers money."

To those who view the collaboration between growers and legal services as a "sell out," he counters that developing a new system is good policy that makes common sense.

"I'm optimistic that it will change the tone of disputes," Gempler said.

Growers still have the option of pursuing the legal route. "You don't lose much by looking at it up front," he said, adding that both parties will put all the facts on the table during mediation.

Patrick McIntyre, executive director of Northwest Justice Project, Washington's largest legal services provider, also has high hopes for the new process.

He's optimistic the program will not only serve the intended purpose of resolving disputes more efficiently and economically, but will also improve relations between employee advocates and farmers.

"I think we've identified the right components in the guiding principles," he said, adding that it's been a very positive process. "We want to make this work."

Time frame

Hunt--at the grange--anticipates the program to be up and running soon. At press time for the Good Fruit Grower, he was finalizing interviews for program coordinator.

While he doesn't have previous data to indicate the number of dispute cases that could go through the new system, he guesses there could be 20 to 30 annually when it becomes fully operational.

Initial funding for the project runs through June 30, 2005. Legislators will then review the program and decide whether to continue funding.

"A lot will depend on how well we do," Hunts said, adding that they have seven to eight months to demonstrate the program's value. "I hope people will look at this as a first alternative to resolving disputes."

Dispute resolution guidelines

A new alternative dispute resolution system (ADRS) will soon be available to growers and farmworkers. Guiding principles for the voluntary program were developed by a collaborative group of agricultural representatives and legal aid providers.

Key components of the guidelines include:

  • Mediation services are for agricultural employment related disputes.
  • Participation is voluntary.
  • Communication during mediation is to be confidential, not available for use in litigation.
  • The resolution system should provide efficient, cost-effective alternatives, not be overly bureaucratic.
  • The system should utilize attorney mediators trained in agricultural labor law, Washington State's agricultural industry, and mediation methods.
  • It must be accessible to persons with limited English proficiency.
  • Participants should be informed of the right to representation by another person, including an attorney, and be informed of the resources available for representation.

© 2004 by Good Fruit Grower, Good Fruit Growers, Volume 55, No. 16, November 2004, pp. 10-11. Used by permission. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise, without the written permission of the publisher and the author.

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15 November 2004