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Driscoll ships 25 percent of strawberries


Driscoll Strawberry Associates is the largest shipper of strawberries in California and the supplier of 25 percent of strawberries consumed in the United States. The company, which contracts with 45 growers, some of whom sit on Driscoll’s board, is a focus of the United Farm Workers’ campaign to organize strawberry workers.

Regarding labor practices on the farms where Driscoll berries are grown, Driscoll President Ken Morena, who identifies himself as a Catholic, told NCR, “I can go to sleep every night, and I can walk tall going to Mass every Sunday.”

He said that caring Catholics are being misled into supporting the farm worker cause out of “ignorance.”

Farms under contract to Driscoll, Morena said, undergo a rigorous internal auditing system. As for labor, sanitation and other problems, he said, “When you find it, you fix it.”

Morena and his manager of public affairs, Phil Adrian, said that strawberry pickers in California earn an average $6.70 an hour, which includes hourly and piece rates. On Driscoll contract farms, they said, the average wage earned in 1996 was $8.60 an hour. They said the wage exceeds that called for under the UFW’s first strawberry contract, negotiated with Swanton Berry Farms and signed in late April.

Morena said that Driscoll is in the limelight because “after three full years of organizing in the field, the UFW has not been successful in signing one contract until very recently [when] they signed up a company that has 17 workers.”

Morena said the UFW has “embarked on ... a corporate campaign, to try to force Driscoll to force its growers to unionize their workers, which, by the way, is illegal under ARLA law.” He said the Agricultural Labor Relations Act stipulates that only the union can organize workers.

Adrian said the 3-year-old strawberry campaign is aimed at boosting ailing UFW membership in a highly labor-intensive industry.

Morena said the solution to the strawberry campaign is simple -- have farms call union elections under required secret ballot.

But UFW leaders say such elections would not reflect workers’ wishes because of concerns that growers might again plow their crops under and close down operations as they have in the past when unions won representation elections.

The union is seeking pledges of neutrality from the growers, which union leaders claim would create an atmosphere more conducive to union organizing.

Adrian rebuts the charge, however, saying claims of intimidation on Driscoll contract farms are “bogus ... falsehoods about my employer, about the brand of strawberries they pack.”

Morena said that allegations about pesticide-use violations on Driscoll contract farms are “nothing more than rhetoric, and it defames the character of our company.” The two company officers said they would provide open visits to any Driscoll contract farms to any group concerned about working conditions.

Morena described the part of the UFW’s campaign directed to consumers and supermarket chains as intimidation. “What do you call going around the country talking to retailers, being very careful not to use the word boycott but saying, ‘Driscoll does this, and you better call them and ask them to let the workers organize to improve their lives.’ In my book that’s intimidation on a national scope,” he said. He described leaflets used at grocery stores as “written intimidation.”

When asked about Catholic support for workers and for the UFW campaign, Adrian said that he, Morena and Miles Reiter, chairman of Driscoll’s board of directors and an important area grower, have met with Monterey, Calif., Bishop Sylvester Ryan on this issue. “Bishop Ryan supports the rights of the workers, which we support,” Adrian said. “He doesn’t say he supports the UFW organizing campaign.”

The day after the interview with Adrian and Morena, NCR was contacted by Gary Caloroso of the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance, a group the UFW claims has ties to growers and to a powerful public relations firm.

The alliance’s purpose, is to “maintain open markets for California strawberries so as to preserve the jobs and businesses of the farm workers, farmers and handlers who work within the law to produce and market the berries.” Caloroso said the organization has the support of 8,000 California strawberry workers, and it is neither pro- nor anti-union.

Caloroso said that Bishop Ryan attended an alliance action of around 200 people July 10, 1997, in Watsonville in favor of workers’ right to self-determination. Caloroso faxed a fact sheet that states that of the 229 unfair labor practice claims filed by the UFW in 1996, “86 percent were either withdrawn by the union or dismissed by the [Agricultural Labor Relations] board.”

The UFW claims the ALRB has become largely pro-grower through appointments made under the administration of Republican Gov. Pete Wilson. The union questions the board’s effectiveness, and has relied increasingly on community initiatives.

Morena said many Catholics have been misled by the UFW’s information. “I think at heart they [Catholic supporters] are good people and they care about the plight of others. But when you don’t know the whole story, you take action, based on ignorance to a large degree, just out of the caring,” he said. “It’s easy to support the at-least-perceived downtrodden, or the poorer class, or however you want to rate it, or the working class. It’s the nature of people in our country to support the underdog, or the perceived underdog.”

National Catholic Reporter, May 15, 1998