UFW steps up efforts to unionize local strawberry pickers
Thursday, September 17, 1998
A storm has been brewing for more than two months over at the Coastal Berry Company in Watsonville, where the United Farm Workers (UFW) has been denouncing the July 23 "union" election of the ad-hoc Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee as a "sham," and where dozens of strawberry workers now charge they have suffered company-sanctioned harassment, violence, and firing because of their pro-union activities.
This week, two dozen of those workers, led by UFW Vice President Efren Barajas, showed up at the Salinas office of Fred Capuyan, regional director for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB), urging him to file complaints against the company based on their charges. (According to regulations, it is up to the ALRB to review such charges and bring complaints against a given company on behalf of workers.)
"We filed those charges two months ago," said Barajas at the Sept. 14 gathering. "It''s more than enough time for the board to respond."
Coastal Berry President David Smith isn''t worried about the UFW''s decision to go to the ALRB. "I seriously doubt anything will be done," he says. "They''ve filed those charges, but the board has not investigated them."
The ALRB is only reviewing charges related to the July 23 election, Smith says. "And the UFW chose not to be on the ballot," he says. "Now they''re trying to salvage the situation. The important thing is, the majority of the workers didn''t vote their way.
"Quite honestly, we don''t think anything will come of it."
The UFW has been trying to draw the 1,000-plus workers at Coastal Berry into the union fold, but so far, has run into stiff resistance from management. That''s not unusual, says UFW spokesman Mark Grossman. The California strawberry industry, with more than 20,000 field workers, most of them in the Monterey Bay area, has so far assiduously opposed UFW efforts to unionize its workers, Grossman says.
In fact, he says, just one strawberry company in the state has allowed the union in: tiny, organically-based Swanton Berry, near Davenport, with a mere 40 workers. This in contrast to Monterey County''s mushroom industry, where Grossman says 70 percent of workers are union.
"Strawberries is where the UFW has been concentrating much effort and resources for the past two years," he says. "The difference between strawberries and other crops is that the other growers would bargain with us in good faith. But with the strawberries, they fire workers [who support the union]."
Grossman points to VCNM Farms in Salinas where, after workers voted 332 to 50 for the UFW in August of ''95, "within a week, the company plowed under one-quarter of the crop, and by the end of the season, all the workers lost their jobs." VCNM eventually settled for $113,000, Grossman says. "We know of at least three examples where workers voted for the UFW, and then the companies changed corporate identities [so they wouldn''t have to abide by election results]," he says.
The campaign to unionize Coastal Berry is pivotal now for the UFW, Barajas says. When Coastal took over the company from Gargiulo L.P. in June ''97, Grossman says the new owners sent workers letters saying they had a right to support a union. "But the foremen and supervisors sent a separate message," he says. "''You support the union, and you''ll be fired.'' On July 1, they got another message--not only will you be fired, you''ll be beaten up."
Arturo Arevalo, 28, was one of the disgruntled workers standing outside Capuyan''s office. He says he''s filed three charges against Coastal Berry: First, that his supervisor threatened to fire him for his union activities; second, that she told him to stay home the day ALRB reps went into the fields to inform workers of the upcoming July 23 election; and finally, that he was fired because of his pro-union stance.
"They said I didn''t clean well enough, that I left fruit behind and that I didn''t listen to her orders, but I did come back for the fruit, and I left the fields when she told me to," Arevalo says.
Although he worked just two months for Coastal Berry, Arevalo says he''s been working in local strawberry fields since he was a boy. He used to work for Swanton Berry, where after it went union, he made $7 an hour, with raises every three months. At Coastal Berry, he says, he made $6.50 an hour, and received fewer benefits.
"Of course, I support the union," he states.
Isabelle Rendon, 30, a longtime UFW activist, says she was physically shoved by anti-union activists sent into the field on company orders July 1. "They were friends and relatives of the supervisors," she charges. "They wanted us to leave the fields. We refused. They took away our [packing] boxes. I was sitting on one box, and [one man] pushed me off. He tried to beat me." Rendon says she injured her back, and hasn''t worked since then, on doctor''s orders. "But they never approved my worker''s comp."
Barajas says the UFW collected more than 100 sworn statements from Coastal Berry workers, saying top company foremen and supervisors urged an anti-union mob to use violence to disrupt harvesting on July 1, and further charging management with using strong-arm tactics to force workers to sign petitions calling for the July 23 election, upon threat of losing their jobs if they didn''t sign.
Coastal Berry Co.''s Smith disputes those charges. "There have been a number of ''unfair labor practices'' filed by the UFW on behalf of some workers, but they have to do with disciplinary actions we took related to non-labor union issues," he says. "For insubordination, failing to show up to work, showing up drunk, that sort of thing." Some of those workers were reprimanded, he says; others were fired.
"We review every case," he insists. "Everything we''ve done so far, we stand by."
Capuyan told the crowd gathered at the ALRB office in Salinas that the preliminary investigation "has been completed" on five workers'' charges, and the ALRB will "review the disposition of those charges" by early next week at the latest. "A number of charges are still being investigated," he said. "We are waiting for the recommendations from our attorneys and team investigators."
But, Capuyan, cautions, "The committee might determine next week that further evidence is needed" before complaints can be brought against the company.
"They have all the evidence they need to issue a complaint on each one of the charges," says Barajas of the ALRB complaint. "They just have to move on it. I was pushing him to say at least one charge would go to complaint. That would be a good start."