Berried By The Opposition?
UFW's effort to organize strawberry workers isn't looking too promising.
Thursday, January 20, 2000
Last June, after three years of organizing, the United Farmworkers of America lost its bid to represent workers at the nation''s largest employer of strawberry pickers, Coastal Berry of Watsonville. Pitted against the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee--which UFW organizers claim is a sham, company-backed organization--the UFW lost out to the so-called Comite.
In the tradition of Cesar Chavez, the UFW isn''t taking the loss lying down. The union has filed 234 objections to the election, 100 of which the Agricultural Labor Relations Board has already agreed to send to an administrative law judge. And the UFW has appealed the decision concerning the remaining 134 objections. By all accounts, the election results will be held hostage to hearings and appeals for a long time to come.
Even if, in the end, the UFW loses this round, it''s not conceding defeat. "We realize that there is a fairly high threshold for throwing out an election," says UFW spokesman Marc Grossman, "but it took 17 years to establish a union at Bruce Church, the country''s second-largest lettuce grower."
Regardless of how it all turns out, events at Coastal Berry seem to have opened a new chapter in the ongoing strawberry labor story. It''s a chapter that begs the fundamental question of who is best suited to represent farm labor in an industry that has been remarkably successful in thwarting UFW organizers, and a chapter that seems to reflect the growing power of family networks to control California''s field laborers.
Taking on the UFW
To hear Comite president Sergio Leal tell it, the UFW does workers more harm than good. Although Chavez founded the union to protect workers from exploitation by agribusiness capitalists, Leal believes workers now need to be protected from the UFW. He simply doesn''t believe the UFW represents what he calls "the people''s" interests.
"All the UFW does is take people''s money and lie and step on people''s rights," Leal says, his words dripping indignation. "I''ve been in Watsonville 35 years, and I''ve seen company after company go out of business because of the UFW."
When companies go out of business, it''s the workers who suffer, Leal says, evidencing the ongoing Basic Vegetable strike in King City. There, some 700 Teamsters lost their jobs because of the strike, even though the company didn''t shut down. The union asked for too much and workers paid dearly, says Leal (also overlooking the fact that Basic''s former employees continue to display remarkable solidarity with the union).
Leal could cite plenty of other company closures to support his views. Straw- berry workers have voted in the UFW on at least four occasions, but only one union was actually established--that one at Swanton Berry, a Santa Cruz organic grower where 40 people work during peak season.
In two of the other three cases, growers allegedly shut down their operations and fired workers in response to the union elections. In the third, VCNM Farms in Salinas plowed under a full quarter''s worth of its strawberry crop and fired workers after a successful election. The UFW filed a complaint with the ALRB and won a $117,000 settlement against VCNM. But by the time the settlement came through, the company had gone out of business, mooting the union election.
According to the UFW''s Grossman, companies use closures as a means to head off unionization efforts. They don''t really go belly up. They dissolve, only to re-form as new companies where labor organizing will need to start anew.
But Leal believes that for growers, it''s often just not worth the hassle to work with a unionized labor force. When managers tell unionized workers to do a better job, he contends, those workers often threaten to complain to the UFW that they''re not being treated fairly. He also claims that UFW workers sometimes file illegitimate workers'' compensation claims, which cost growers big bucks.
The Fox Guarding the Chicken Coop?
Leal is passionate about his cause. He says he doesn''t make any money in return for his Comite work, and he explains that he''s a Christian who "believes in helping people." But if it sounds like Leal is just a bit too concerned about the company''s welfare and not enough about the workers'' welfare, you''re not alone in this thinking. Grossman is quick to point out that Leal''s Comite is, at the very least, circumstantially linked to growers.
Leal, along with the Comite''s first president, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, were involved with growers the UFW successfully sued for illegally financing anti-UFW activities to the tune of $56,000. Moreover, Leal''s brother is a Coastal Berry foreman who, Grossman says, would lose a great deal of his ability to maintain a spoils system in the fields, though which he benefits in various ways. "Most of the Comite''s activists and leaders aren''t pickers," Grossman claims.
Why then, did so many Coastal Berry workers vote for the Comite? Grossman believes it''s because of the group''s intimidation tactics. "This is one of the most egregious examples of anti-union intimidation since the California labor laws went into effect," he says, noting that Leal was fired from Coastal Berry for his role in anti-UFW rioting.
Workers'' support for the Comite may also be attributed to the growing network of family ties that reach back to villages in Mexico, which increasingly govern who gets which jobs in California''s fields.
"The farm labor force today is very different than it was 30 years ago," Don Villarejo, former executive director of the California Institute of Rural Studies told the San Francisco Chronicle in June. "In 1970, half of all California farmworkers were born in the U.S. But today, 95 percent are foreign-born, and 42 percent admitted [to government interviewers] to being here without papers."
Apparently, many workers see family loyalty as a better bet than trust in the UFW or some other outsider union. But it''s an open question whether they''re truly better off without the UFW, with its potential to organize entire industry sectors.
According to the UFW, average strawberry workers still make a mere $8,500 a year, and they haven''t received a meaningful raise in 10 years. They work as much as 12 hours a day, bending practically to the ground to pick fruit often laced with pesticides. According to the Washington, D.C.-based Environmental Working Group, strawberries are the food most contaminated with health-threatening pesticides.
As long as labor, environmental, and social problems have presented significant challenges to the farmworkers of the Salinas Valley, they are certain to continue. The Coastal Berry standoff, as isolated of a case as it may seem, is a representative slice of these ongoing challenges.