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In a decision that will affect more than 5,000 workers in the eastern part of the state, the Pennsylvania Supreme Court has ruled that mushroom workers can unionize under the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act. In Vlasic Farms Inc. v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board, a unanimous court affirmed the Commonwealth Court’s finding that mushroom workers are not exempt from the purview of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act. The state justices rejected Vlasic Farms Inc.’s argument that mushroom growing is an agricultural activity, which would mean that the workers would not be covered under the act. “While certainly the legislative and regulatory provisions cited by [Vlasic] manifest an intent to treat mushroom production as agricultural activity in some contexts, the General Assembly simply has not extended such interpretation to the PLRA,” Justice Thomas Saylor said in the opinion. The high court relied primarily on the Commonwealth Court’s decision in a companion case to Vlasic Farms, Blue Mountain Mushroom Co. Inc. v. Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board. Blue Mountain was not part of the Vlasic Farms appeal, although the two cases were decided on the same day at the lower court level. Arthur Read, general counsel for the Friends of Farmworkers Inc. and counsel for the mushroom workers, said the decision would impact thousands of workers in the area, most of them in Pennsylvania’s Chester and Berks counties. Read said a petition for allowance of appeal is pending in the Blue Mountain case, but he predicted that it would not be accepted on the basis of Vlasic Farms. Matthew Lee Wiener of Dechert, who represented the PLRB, said that he does not agree with the court’s decision but that he accepts it. The union, Comite de Trabajadores de Campbell Fresh, filed a petition with the PLRB for representation of its full- and part-time workers involved in mushroom production and harvesting at Vlasic Farms in Berks County, Penn. The PLRB complied with the union’s request to hold a representation election despite the fact that Vlasic objected to creation of the union. In the election, 104 proposed members of the union voted against representation, 101 voted for it and 20 votes were challenged. The union filed a charge of unfair labor practices against Vlasic, arguing that the employer threatened to close the mushroom production facility if the workers gained union representation. The union also claimed that Vlasic promised to establish an in-house grievance committee if the representation petition was withdrawn. Vlasic challenged the PLRB’s jurisdiction to hear the union’s charge, arguing that mushroom workers are agricultural laborers excluded from the provisions of the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Act. A hearing examiner found that the PLRB had distinguished mushroom workers from agricultural laborers, as it was allowed to do through its administrative discretion. Therefore, the examiner ruled, the mushroom workers are under the PLRB’s jurisdiction. The examiner also held that Vlasic had engaged in unfair labor practices. Vlasic filed exceptions, which the PLRB dismissed. Vlasic then appealed to the Commonwealth Court. The Commonwealth Court affirmed the PLRB’s ruling, relying on its decision in Blue Mountain. The court said that agriculture involves the growing of crops or raising of livestock in natural conditions but that mushroom farming is horticulture because mushrooms are grown in buildings with controlled light and temperatures. Because the PLRA does not specifically exclude horticulture workers, the court said, the mushroom workers are under the PLRB’s jurisdiction. On appeal to the supreme court, Vlasic cited two cases that it said held that the term “agriculture” includes mushroom growing: Gaspari v. Board of Adjustment, a 1958 state supreme court case, and El Concelio de los Trabajadores v. Department of Environmental Resources, a 1984 Commonwealth Court case. But the supreme court said it was persuaded by the Commonwealth Court’s “comprehensive opinion” in Blue Mountain. “In this regard, Blue Mountain appropriately highlights the unsuccessful effort to secure such extension in the commonwealth via statutory amendment, and contrasts the experience at the federal level in light of the successful passage of a congressional mandate expanding the definition of agricultural activity in the NLRA [National Labor Relations Act] context.” Saylor indicated that if the law in this area were to change, the revision would come from the Legislature. “In summary, the pertinent provisions of the PLRA were styled after a federal enactment pursuant to which mushroom workers were not considered agricultural laborers,” Saylor said in the court opinion. “The Pennsylvania General Assembly, unlike Congress, has not acted to modify such workers’ status, and the PLRB maintains a consistent and reasonable interpretation of the statute.” Saylor also said the Commonwealth Court’s decision gave deference to the PLRB’s own construction of the statute.

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