SAN FRANCISCO — Winery workers Tuesday struck the world's largest wine maker, E & J Gallo Inc. of Modesto in a sharp escalation of their 5-week-old battle against California winegrowers.
Gallo was the last of 12 members of the Winery Employers Assn. to be struck by the Winery, Distillery and Allied Workers Union, which opposes wine makers' demands for a wage freeze and cuts in workers' health and retirement benefits. Wine makers, in turn, have rejected a union offer to temporarily cut wages, which average $12 an hour.
Members of the employers group, such as Christian Brothers and Almaden, account for more than half of all California wine. Gallo alone is responsible for 40% of the state's total and 25% of all wine consumed in the United States.
Tuesday's strike came as the grape harvest was coming to an end, and the grape must, or juice, was starting to ferment, but Gallo spokesman Dan Solomon said the walkout has had no significant effect on production.
"We had a short interruption today in one bottling line, but we will be back in production in a few hours," he said about six hours after the strike began at 8 a.m. "We're still processing and shipping fairly normally."
All three of Gallo's winery operations were struck. The company has crushing and fermenting facilities in Fresno and Livingston and a larger plant in Modesto, where bulk wine is blended, aged, bottled, stored and shipped.
Solomon said the seasonal work was already finished in Fresno and should be completed in Livingston "in another few weeks."
The industrywide union contract expired July 31. Other employers group members were struck in August, just as the time-sensitive "crush," or grape harvest, was getting started. However, a spokesman for the employers said the wine makers have been able to bring in the crop with little inconvenience other than longer-than-usual waits by growers delivering their grapes.
It is unclear how effective the walkout by the 1,025 Gallo workers will be. The Modesto plant is highly automated, and Solomon said his company soon will bring in non-union workers to replace those on strike.
"We've been screening temporary workers for the past few months," he said. "One ad in a local paper brought a couple hundred responses."
In addition, some local grape growers, who run small family farms that have been pinched financially by a prolonged grape glut, have offered to help wine makers finish the crush.
A federal mediator is scheduled to resume negotiations between the union and growers Friday in San Francisco. Negotiations broke off in anger Sept. 3; union leader Robert Fogg said then that he would seek to "shut down the entire California wine industry."
The last major wine strike was in 1980, when about 3,500 workers walked out of 23 wineries for 17 days, nearly turning off California's wine faucet, which accounts for 70% of the nation's domestic production.
The current strike involves about 2,200 workers and is aimed primarily at the less-expensive "jug wine" makers near Fresno in the San Joaquin Valley. However, it also has affected some upscale wine makers in the Napa Valley, such as Charles Krug.