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Agricolas v. Molinelli

Decided: February 2, 1989.

COMITE ORGANIZADOR DE TRABAJADORES AGRICOLAS (COTA) (AGRICULTURAL WORKERS ORGANIZING COMMITTEE), ANGEL SANTIAGO NATAL, ALEXANDRO MALDONADO, JOSE QUILES RIVERA AND RAMON SANTIAGO, PLAINTIFFS-APPELLANTS,
v.
KARL MOLINELLI, TRADING AS MOLINELLI FARMS, DEFENDANT-RESPONDENT



On certification to the Superior Court, Appellate Division.

For affirmance in part; for reversal in part and remandment -- Chief Justice Wilentz and Justices Clifford, Handler, Pollock, O'Hern, Garibaldi and Stein. Opposed -- none. The opinion of the Court was delivered by Garibaldi, J.

Garibaldi

[114 NJ Page 89] Article I, paragraph 19 of the New Jersey Constitution of 1947 provides in part that "[p]ersons in private employment shall have the right to organize and bargain collectively. . . ."*fn1 This appeal concerns the rights and remedies available to migrant farm workers under this constitutional provision. The

union activities of farm workers are not protected under either the National Labor Relations Act (29 U.S.C.A. ยงยง 141 to 187) (N.L.R.A.), or any New Jersey statute. Their sole protection arises under this constitutional provision.

I

The plaintiffs are the Comite Organizador de Trabajadores Agricolas ("COTA" or "the Union") and four migrant farm workers (the plaintiffs). COTA is a nonprofit labor union that organizes agricultural workers and negotiates collective bargaining agreements with agricultural employers. The farm workers, Messrs. Angel Santiago Natal, Alexandro Maldonado, Jose Quiles Rivera, and Ramon Santiago, worked for defendant, Karl Molinelli, trading as Molinelli Farms (the employer). Before being discharged in 1985, plaintiffs worked for Molinelli Farms for various periods, ranging from three to twelve years. None of the plaintiffs was rehired by the employer in 1986. Like most migrant farm workers, plaintiffs were hired to plant, harvest, and package various crops. The workers were paid what approximated the minimum wage, and were supplied housing and other needs, such as medical services, banking services, and transportation. They were also paid their plane fare to and from Puerto Rico for purposes of participating in Molinelli's work force.

Defendant, Molinelli, owns and operates a farming business in Vineland, New Jersey. Although defendant's fields are scattered, including both property he owns as well as land he leases, between 1981 and 1985 he farmed virtually the same seventy-five acres of land. During that period, his farming operations consisted of planting, growing, and selling crops throughout the farming season, which normally ran from March to November. In 1985, as well as during the five previous years, defendant operated a labor camp to house his migrant workers. The camp was located on the family homestead on Landis Avenue, which is owned by defendant's brother.

Defendant was not required to pay rent for the use of the labor camp but was responsible for its upkeep.

In May 1985, a majority of the agricultural workers in defendant's employ, including the plaintiffs, voluntarily joined COTA, electing it as their exclusive bargaining representative for the negotiation of terms and conditions of employment. COTA requested that defendant recognize the Union and bargain with it.

Defendant refused to recognize either the Union or to submit voluntarily to a secret ballot election. Consequently, on October 7, 1985, plaintiffs filed an action in the Chancery Division seeking a representation election to determine the exclusive bargaining agent for Molinelli's employees pursuant to Article I, paragraph 19 of the N.J. Constitution. On November 29, 1985, the court ordered that a secret ballot election be conducted under the auspices of the New Jersey State Board of Mediation to determine whether a majority of defendant's agricultural employees wished to be represented by COTA for collective bargaining purposes.

Approximately two weeks after the filing of this complaint, as of the week ending October 19, 1985, defendant discharged all of his 1985 work force. Prior to 1985, he had consistently retained his migrant workers until the beginning of November. After terminating the plaintiff farm workers in the middle of October 1985, defendant continued to take crops to market. He hired several different farm workers to harvest crops and continued to hire farm workers on a part-time basis into December 1985. He paid these workers more than the $3.35 per hour that he paid his regular workers during the summer of 1985. He did not keep payroll records relating to the employment of these workers.

On February 7, 1986, the New Jersey State Board of Mediation certified that COTA was unanimously selected as the bargaining representative. In an order dated February 19, 1986, the court declared COTA to be the exclusive bargaining

agent of defendant's agricultural employees and ordered Molinelli Farms "immediately [to] bargain and negotiate in good faith with plaintiff COTA concerning all terms and conditions of agricultural employment."

Although the union repeatedly requested during March 1986 that the defendant meet with its representatives to negotiate regarding the terms and conditions of employment, Molinelli refused to do so. Instead, in a letter dated March 13, 1986, defendant's attorney advised COTA that "Mr. Molinelli's intentions are to cease providing housing for his employees, cease utilizing full-time help and to operate the farm with temporary part-time help. In view of that decision, it would appear that negotiations with your Union would not serve any useful purpose." By correspondence dated March 18, 1986, COTA informed Molinelli that his sudden decision to operate the farm with temporary part-time help did not eliminate his bargaining obligations and urged him to commence bargaining with the union immediately.

Defendant made no efforts to modify or set aside the prior order of the lower court that required him "immediately [to] bargain and negotiate in good faith" with COTA. When he failed to comply with the court's prior bargaining order, plaintiffs sought from the court, pursuant to New Jersey Court Rule 1:10-5, an Order in Aid of Litigant's Rights. On April 29, 1986, the court ordered Molinelli Farms to show cause why plaintiffs should not receive relief in aid of their previously-declared rights. After a brief period of discovery, a plenary hearing was held on June 16, 1986.

At the hearing defendant was the sole witness. He testified that in October 1985 he decided to reduce the number of acres that he would farm and to change the nature of his operation because he had $30,000 of "outstanding bills." It was at that time, Molinelli stated, that he withdrew from his total emphasis on farming and began a trucking business that would transport produce to market. He acquired two trucks, hired a full-time

driver, and operated one of the trucks himself for part of each day. Defendant was attracted to the trucking business because he thought it more stable and less risky. He claimed that his income from farming had been falling and his expenses had been rising since 1983. However, he did not produce any records detailing specific expenditures and sources of income to substantiate his claims.

Nonetheless, in late 1985 and 1986, defendant continued his farming operations. He farmed approximately twenty-four acres of his own property at 5 East Chestnut Street, and about seven acres that he leased. He testified that he had not yet decided whether he would farm the eight acres at his mother's farm on Tuckahoe Road during 1986.

Other than a reduction in the acreage, defendant's 1985 activities remained essentially unchanged. He continued to farm, grow the same crops, and take them to market. Furthermore, he testified that it was his intention to continue farming in 1987 and into the foreseeable future.

Moreover, defendant's 1986 employees performed the same type of work as plaintiffs had done in 1985. Like his 1985 workers, defendant's 1986 workers possessed no special skills or training. The trial court found that "despite the change the defendant is still engaged to a substantial degree in a farming operation that includes unskilled labor and which does not involve any special equipment or training for these particular employees."

Defendant's 1986 workforce was composed of at least two steady hands who worked approximately thirty to thirty-five hours per week according to Molinelli Farm payroll sheets through May 13, 1986. In addition, defendant hired several other employees to work a few hours a day including crews of Mexicans and Cambodians, whom he testified he would likely continue to employ in the future. It is unclear precisely how many employees he actually hired during the 1986 season prior

to the time of the hearing because he did not keep payroll records for all of his workers.

Defendant paid his 1986 employees $3.50 to $4.00 per hour as opposed to the $3.35 received by plaintiffs. He stated that he paid his 1986 employees more because "part-time help you always pay them a little more then, you know, beings [sic] they are only working thirty some hours a week. . . ." He did not pay Social Security benefits for his 1986 employees as he had for his 1985 employees, nor did he pay unemployment insurance for all of his 1986 employees.

Defendant conceded that he never sought to reemploy any of his 1985 employees. He testified that he did not believe that any of these employees wanted to work part time, although he acknowledged that he never asked them or the union whether they wanted to work on that basis. He refused to negotiate with COTA and made no effort to modify or dissolve the court's bargaining order.

In its oral opinion the court noted that the following inference was supported by the evidence:

One of those inferences that I might mention at the outset is the fact that given the resistence [sic] to the initial union organization activities of the plaintiff and given the change in operation by the defendant which came shortly after or at least around the same time that the election was being conducted and that the order ordering the bargaining occurred, there is a fair inference that the change in operation was motivated by some intent on the part of the farm and Mr. Molinelli to avoid the impact of the unionization or to retaliate against the individual workers for their union activity. That inference can be considered by this Court, although there was no direct proof indicating any anti-union sentiment on the part of Mr. Molinelli.

Nonetheless, the court concluded

that the decision to change the operation was not one that was simply a reaction to the union activity and that although the union activity was a factor, it is my judgment that the preponderance of the evidence satisfies me that the decision would have been made even in the absence of the union activity.

The trial court entered an Order on September 16, 1986, that provided:

(1) plaintiff Union is the sole and exclusive employee representative for the negotiation of terms and conditions of employment ...


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