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UFW targets strawberry fields

NCR Staff
Salinas, Calif.

Mexican ranchera melodies melted into a Spanish version of the labor chant “We shall not be moved” as the United Farm Workers van set out one afternoon in late April for the offices of strawberry buyers and brokers.

The van’s 11 occupants, including strawberry pickers, union organizers, a Catholic activist and a university student, were on a mission to convince these intermediaries of a $600 million agribusiness to attend a “home meeting” to hear directly about the conditions endured by thousands of Mexican and Mexican-American farm laborers who harvest the juicy red fruit for U.S. consumers.

Ultimately, the UFW wants brokers and buyers to help pressure Driscoll Strawberry Associates, one of the largest shippers in the strawberry business, to support neutrality agreements for farm worker union organizations. Neutrality agreements are measures that, according to the union, would enhance the chances of organizing berry pickers.

The van excursion was one result of initiatives that have, in the past year, moved the plight of California’s 20,000 strawberry pickers to the top of the agendas of labor, religious and community leaders nationwide. Strawberries are in season not only in this hub of production in Salinas and Watsonville but also in parishes and community groups nationwide, in the halls of the U.S. Bishops’ Conference and in the national headquarters of the AFL-CIO.

The campaign accelerated following an April 17, 1997, march in Watsonville of 30,000 workers and supporters. The shutting down of a farm where workers were attempting to organize also fueled the initiative, which began officially in 1995.

The campaign has garnered the support of major grocery chains that have signed a document supporting the rights of strawberry workers. But its success in organizing the workers is limited to one small organic grower whose products are available only in California.

On the other side, a spokesman for Driscoll, a major target of the organizing effort in California, has said that the UFW’s organizing efforts amount to intimidation. The company also claims that the union is misleading Catholics into supporting “the perceived downtrodden.”.

Consumers, meanwhile, are unlikely to find union strawberries outside of California. Union organizers said they are not advocating a boycott of California strawberries at this point but are encouraging consumers to notify growers and distributors to allow union organizing activities.

Ushered back outside

At the produce brokerage firm of Blazer and Wilkinson on the outskirts of Salinas, the UFW van pulled into a parking space across the lot from high-priced RVs and imports. The group disembarked and entered the brokerage office, but was immediately ushered back outside. Within minutes, company partner Scott Blazer emerged to talk with the group.

The exchange was amicable. The workers and activists spoke their minds, describing such general concerns as the intimidation of workers who attempted to organize unions, the absence of wage hikes during the past decade, job insecurity and problems with care for injured workers.

Blazer, who expressed interest but remained noncommittal, said he would consider the home visit proposal.

Following this and two other stops, strawberry picker Carmen Guerrero said, “They listened to us.” And UFW organizer Matt Smith said he thought executives at Driscoll Strawberry Associates would soon hear about the visits.

Much of the encouragement for the workers and organizers has come from religious quarters and particularly the Catholic church. On March 30, the U.S. bishops issued a statement urging justice for strawberry workers. The plea underlined efforts by those who “toil in these strawberry fields” to organize “to secure better working conditions, better wages, and a better life for themselves and their families.”

The national statement echoed an earlier one from Bishop Sylvester Ryan of the Monterey, Calif., diocese, which includes the Salinas and Watsonville centers of California strawberry production. Ryan pointed out that workers “experience working conditions that violate both our state laws and all fundamental human rights, oftentimes to the extreme.” He said some employers and growers “consistently violate the rights of workers in the worst possible way” in an industry that is “extremely labor intensive” and where “workers have been especially vulnerable and subject to an entire array of abuses.”

The bishops, in their national statement, acknowledged decent treatment of workers by a “few” strawberry growers.

Reiterating church teachings on the right of workers to form and join unions, the bishops declared that the vast majority of seasonal workers deserve “redress.”

Sal Alvarez has worked in the farm labor movement for 32 years, since the earliest actions of UFW President and founder Cesar Chavez. A Catholic deacon in San Jose and director of the Interfaith Support Committee for Santa Clara and other northern California counties, Alvarez said this kind of support from Catholic and other religious leaders on the strawberry issue is symbolic of a nationwide “resurgence of a coalition between church and labor.”

32-year supporter

Fr. Eugene Boyle, a diocesan priest from San Jose and a 32-year supporter of farm workers, said the strawberry initiative and similar actions, like the earlier grape boycott, represent social justice efforts “about which the church doesn’t have to hang its head.” Boyle also said the wide support represents a general rise in success in the unionization of agricultural workers since Chavez’s death five years ago on April 27.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said since 1994 the organization has won 15 straight union elections and signed 17 new contracts in sectors such as roses, mushrooms, wine, grapes, lettuce and other vegetables. Overall union membership, he said, which dipped to 21,000 in 1994 from an early 1970s peak of 80,000, has risen to 26,000. On April 21, the UFW signed its first strawberry contract with Santa Cruz County’s Swanton Berry Farms, a small organic grower. The agreement covers wages, job security and benefits for 40 to 50 workers.

As a result, quarts and pints of Swanton berries will be the first in California supermarkets to bear the UFW eagle trademark. UFW organizers also convinced Coastal Berry Farms, the third largest grower in California, to adopt a neutrality agreement on union organizing.

The UFW is requesting that growers and Driscoll, as an industry leader, sign a public pledge to remain neutral while organizing occurs.

According to a UFW flyer, “strawberry workers have voted for the UFW union in state-held, secret-ballot elections, most recently in 1989, 1994 and 1995. Companies responded by firing pickers, plowing under strawberries and selectively shutting down operations.”

According to the flyer, 87 percent of more than 400 strawberry workers at one group of farms in Salinas voted for the UFW in August 1995. The following week, the farm “plowed under 25 percent of the strawberries. The next month the company shut down and abandoned the workers.”

The flyer said shutdowns also occurred following the 1989 and 1994 pro-UFW votes.

Strawberry pickers are seasonal workers. They work between seven and nine months of the year, earning an average of $8,500 for physically taxing work. Boyle said of the organizing resurgence: “It is as if Cesar’s spirit has been unleashed in the workers” and in the organizing work of leaders like Chavez’s son-in-law and UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Secretary-Treasurer and cofounder Dolores Huerta.

Important daily tasks

According to UFW community organizer Cruz Phillips, union initiatives on the strawberry issue spurred a response from broad-based community committees that carry on the daily tasks of meeting with workers, leafleting supermarkets, visiting growers, writing petitions and conducting actions around workplace issues.

Such local efforts and pressure from religious leadership combined to raise awareness at the point where strawberries meet consumers -- the nation’s supermarkets. Since December 1996, the top four and number seven on the list of the largest U.S. grocery chains -- Kroger, Safeway, American Stores (Lucky, Acme and Jewel), Yucaipa (Ralphs and Dominick’s) and A & P -- have signed public statements supporting strawberry workers’ rights.

The signings culminated a campaign of petitions, leafleting and expressions of support from nearly every religious leader in California, said Phillips. Among those signing letters asking Lucky stores to come on board were Los Angeles regional Catholic Bishops Stephen Blaire and Gabino Zavala, Methodist Bishop Roy Sano, Episcopal Bishop Fred Borsch, President of the Central Conference of American Rabbis Richard Levi, the Rev. Robert Mathias of the Lutheran Synod of Northern California and the Rev. Phillip Young of the Presbyterian Synod of the Pacific.

“It’s a really powerful group of people who signed on to the letters to Lucky,” Phillips said. “Then what really does it are the numbers of people who come out. You can have all the religious leaders you can get, but you have to have at the same time members of the social justice committees to leaflet at the stores and send letters.”

Phillips said the long-term goal of initiatives like the strawberry organizing, in addition to security for workers, is to create more stable, healthy communities. Thus, the campaign also addresses issues like water sustainability and use of pesticides like captan and methyl bromide.

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998