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UFW Strawberry Pickings Are Slim

Fear of Dues, Shutdowns Hurts Efforts

June 12, 1998|MARTHA GROVES | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A big Watsonville strawberry grower and shipper has whipped up a ruckus among pickers by expressing his sentiments about unions.

But it's not what you might think.

David Gladstone, chairman and owner of Coastal Berry Co., sent letters to employees in April indicating his support for the United Farm Workers. "I believe that we can strengthen [our] special relationship if the workers are represented by a labor union," he wrote. "Of course, only you can make that decision."

Anti-union forces organized a protest last week to demand that Coastal Berry remain neutral in the matter, as required by state law. The rally, in which about 300 workers participated, shut Coastal Berry's plant for several hours on June 3.

Some workers fear that union dues would be burdensome. Others cite the warnings of union opponents who tick off the string of strawberry companies that have gone out of business after workers voted in unions.

Despite a highly publicized two-year campaign, the UFW has made little discernible headway in its effort to recruit 20,000 California strawberry pickers.

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To date, just one small organic farm in Davenport has voted to organize. In addition, Coastal Berry became the first and so far only grower to sign a neutrality agreement, pledging not to interfere if workers choose to organize. Gladstone, an investor based in Washington, is said to have strong ties to the AFL-CIO, with which the UFW is affiliated.

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But the threat of UFW activity has prompted some growers to raise wages, offer medical benefits and provide paid vacations--improvements that in turn have made it tougher for the union to win support.

Given the disruption caused by the protest, David Smith, Coastal Berry's president, said the best situation for the company would be if "the UFW called for an election this season and workers would vote in a supervised vote."

Under state law, only the union can call for an election. And so far the UFW does not appear to feel confident that it has enough votes to prevail even at Coastal Berry.

The UFW claims progress on other fronts. More than 7,000 grocery stores have endorsed the right of workers to organize, including those owned by Safeway, Vons and Lucky. The union

has also filed a number of federal class-action suits against growers involving sexual harassment and unpaid "off-the-clock" work.

"It's a big fight," said Marc Grossman, a UFW lobbyist in Sacramento. "It's not a fight that will be over this year or maybe [even] next."

Hydro-Tomatoes:

"Cluster" tomatoes, with vines still attached, are becoming ubiquitous in Southland grocery stores. Imports of the bright-red tomatoes have surged the last couple of years, taking market share from U.S.- and Mexican-grown tomatoes. They are also helping to build the market during the off-season. "Consumers like them," said Gary Lucier, a U.S. Department of Agriculture economist.

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Many of the imports come from the Netherlands, Canada and Spain, which typically grow them hydroponically in greenhouses--in solutions or in moist material rather than in soil. California farmers are growing more greenhouse hydroponic tomatoes as well, Lucier said.

The 'O' Word:

Needy legal immigrants aren't the only ones cheering a law that President Clinton is expected to sign later this month. Organic farmers are celebrating, too. In addition to restoring federal food stamp eligibility for immigrants, the law authorizes the U.S. Department of Agriculture to award funding for research in organic agriculture.

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Helping to propel the organic farming initiative was the release last October of a report, "Searching for the 'O-Word,' " by the Organic Farming Research Foundation in Santa Cruz. It showed that USDA devotes less than a tenth of a percent of its research budget to organic farming systems.

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Martha Groves can be reached by e-mail at martha.groves@latimes.com or by fax at (213) 473-2480.

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