More than 300 Ventura mushroom farm workers split nearly $1 million in back pay Tuesday as settlement of a labor lawsuit that United Farm Workers officials called among the largest in memory.
The payoff was a long and bittersweet harvest for the employees, who spent 15 months on strike between 1981 and 1983 after Oxnard-based West Foods changed wages and working conditions for 301 employees at its Olivas Park Drive farm.
"It's gratifying to finally get something for people who were victims of abuse and corporate greed, but it's sad because it took so long," said Karl Lawson, a UFW division manager in Oxnard.
In 1986, the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board found that West Foods, now a subsidiary of Castle & Cooke, the nation's largest producer of fresh fruits and vegetables, had engaged in unfair labor practices. But workers waited another two years while West Foods exhausted legal appeals.
On Tuesday afternoon, the laborers, many of whom still work at the site under a new owner, joined a line that snaked around the block of the Oxnard union office. They collected checks that ranged from $300 to $8,600.
The $994,000 total reimbursement encompassed lost wages resulting from pre-strike layoffs, back pay and accrued interest.
"I can't think of any case where the amount has been higher," said Dave Stirling, an attorney for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, the agency that investigates, prosecutes and resolves unfair farm labor practices.
The distribution was made possible by the state's 13-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
An attorney for West Foods declined comment on the settlement.
As they waited to pick up their checks, the laborers described the hardships they and their families endured while they were out of work.
"I had a one-month-old son when we went on strike," said Ricardo Cruz Olavarrieta. "We had to take out money from the bank just to eat."
Others spoke of cars repossessed, moving in with friends and relatives to save on rent and faltering marriages.
"I almost got divorced. When you don't have any money to support a family, you can have problems," said David Luna.
During the 15-month strike, the union doled out $25 to $50 a week to those out of work. Many laborers said that local markets donated beans, rice, tortillas and bread.
Olavarrieta said the Latin community in Oxnard was behind the workers. "They are very conscious of the battle we were fighting as agricultural workers," he said.
Lawson said the mushroom farm has gone through three owners since West Foods and that workers are still owed a total of $600,000 in back wages from Mushroom King, a Santa Rosa-area firm that bought the farm but went bankrupt in 1987.
"We'll be lucky to get ten cents on the dollar," Lawson said.
About 40% of the original 300 laborers continue to work at the mushroom farm, which is now owned by a Tennessee firm called United Foods.
The company, one of Ventura's largest employers, raises about 14 million pounds of mushrooms annually, growing them in big beds of horse manure mixed with peat moss.
Because mushrooms grow best in the dark, the laborers, who receive $6 an hour, wear miners' helmets with lights on them as they work in the rank-smelling greenhouses.
In 1981, workers received $4.21 an hour, significantly less than the industry standard, Lawson said.
During contract negotiations that year, West Foods staged a lockout by laying off 230 of its 300 workers and asking other workers to come in for as little as one hour each day, Lawson said.
The UFW and West Foods settled in March, 1983, raising wages to $5.85 an hour.
Meanwhile, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board appointed an administrative law judge to hear the case, and in June, 1983, West Foods was found guilty of 14 unfair labor practices, including bad-faith bargaining and failing to rehire 104 farm workers who offered to return to work in early 1983.
"Those workers went through hell in 1982 when they were out of work," Lawson said. "This is a bittersweet victory."
As he stood in line to collect a check, Jesus Torres added: "I lost 10 times more than I'm going to get now. But I'm happy to get some money back."