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CALIFORNIA | HEARD ON THE BEAT / LABOR

The Strawberry Jam : Dispute Between Growers and Farm Workers Heats Up

December 27, 1996|STUART SILVERSTEIN | TIMES STAFF WRITER

The labor dispute between the United Farm Workers union and California's strawberry growers is beginning to heat up, but so far it is strictly a public relations battle.

UFW officials hope that by exposing alleged abuses--such as a lack of toilets and clean drinking water for fieldworkers, along with low wages and scarce health insurance--they can embarrass the industry into sitting down to negotiate a contract. The growers, on the other hand, are trying to blunt the UFW's campaign by depicting the union's claims as gross exaggerations.

The stakes are high for both sides. The AFL-CIO, the umbrella group for the nation's unions, is throwing its support behind the resurgent UFW and has called the strawberry campaign one of the U.S. labor movement's most important organizing drives. California's strawberry growers, meanwhile, don't want to see their big and profitable industry--which accounts for 80% of the nation's strawberry crop--undercut by a costly labor battle or future union contracts that are expensive.

In the early going of this fight for public opinion, the union appears to be well in the lead. The UFW has even persuaded several supermarket chains, including Compton-based Ralphs Grocery, to publicly announce their support for the workers' cause.

The growers, meanwhile, don't seem to be helping themselves by shading the truth. For instance, they try to taint the UFW by portraying it as being out of touch with most of the 20,000 California strawberry pickers it wants to represent. The growers claim that labor leaders haven't won any contracts yet because most workers simply don't think they need a union, and note that a loosely organized group of pickers known as the Pro Workers Committee has emerged to oppose the UFW.

The UFW publicity campaign "is a waste of time," said Gary Caloroso, a spokesman for the grower-financed Strawberry Workers & Farmers Alliance.

But what Caloroso neglects to mention is that the UFW has won each of the three elections held in the 1990s where pickers were given the chance to decide whether they wanted the union's representation.

Those workers don't have contracts today because one of the farms went out of business, another stopped growing strawberries and a third cut back on its strawberry production.

In fact, the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board lodged an unfair labor practices complaint against the third enterprise, VCNM Farms in Watsonville, alleging that it plowed under strawberry fields to discourage the pickers' union activities. The farm settled the charge in March by paying $113,000 in back wages to workers.

Shut Up? Did the administration of Gov. Pete Wilson silence a state labor market analyst for telling the gloomy truth about Los Angeles County's employment situation?

That's what some California economists are privately wondering now that Vincent Canales, an analyst with the California Employment Development Department, has been stripped of his previous duty of talking with reporters about the county's job market.

In November, Canales told The Times that the actual employment growth in Los Angeles County during the last two years now appears to be far less than the official state estimates indicate. For instance, the 92,900 jobs reportedly gained in 1995 may turn out to be only about 20,000, he said.

The picture should be clarified in February, when the state does its annual adjustment of jobs statistics after reviewing more detailed employment information. Still, some economists say it appears Canales was punished for spilling the beans early about what the annual adjustment will show for Los Angeles County, whose slow recovery from the early 1990s recession is a continuing source of frustration.

Sean Walsh, Wilson's chief spokesman, said, "There never was any communication from the governor's office trying to silence this individual."

"He still retains his same position at EDD," Walsh added. "His spokesman duties are now being handled by his supervisor, for whatever management reason chose to do that."

An EDD spokeswoman declined to elaborate, calling the situation a confidential personnel matter.

Times staff writer Stuart Silverstein can be reached by phone at (213) 237-7887 or by e-mail at stuart.silverstein@latimes.com

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