OXNARD — As laborers return to the ballot box today to break a deadlock in a representation election at the nation's largest strawberry grower, the United Farm Workers union and a rival committee have stepped up campaigns in the fields around Oxnard in an effort to win the high-stakes organizing vote.
Pickers arriving at work Wednesday morning were greeted by an informational picket outside a Coastal Berry Co. field along Gonzales Road, a quarter-mile-long line of UFW supporters waving pro-union placards and trademark red-and-black flags.
Later in the day, half a dozen organizers from the rival Coastal Berry of California Farmworkers Committee, an independent organization not affiliated with the company, also visited workers in the fields. They urged workers to reject the UFW's three-year campaign to win a contract at Coastal Berry--the first step in gaining a foothold in California's tough-to-organize strawberry industry.
At one point, tension between UFW organizers and committee members flared and angry words were exchanged at a field near Rio Mesa High School north of Oxnard. Sheriff's deputies were called and the conflict quickly fizzled.
The runoff election will take place today in Oxnard and Friday in Watsonville and Salinas. State labor officials expect to count the ballots Friday night in Salinas.
"We are here fighting for a victory in the fields," said UFW supporter Efren Vargas, 33, a strawberry picker who stood on the roadside Wednesday morning urging fellow workers to support the union founded by Cesar Chavez. "We have many people who support us and I believe we can win."
But committee members said they were equally confident that they would be able to turn back the UFW and win the right to represent the company's 1,500 workers.
"The UFW has already lost; the people are for us," said committee Vice President Sergio Leal, waiting at the same field for pickers to get off work. "We are workers like they are, and they know we are trying to do the best for everybody."
The runoff comes a week after the UFW and committee squared off in an election to represent pickers at the company, which farms about 1,200 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties.
The committee fell five votes short of the simple majority needed to win the election outright, taking 670 of the ballots cast. The UFW received 589 votes while 83 workers voted for "no union." Six votes remained in dispute, prompting representatives of the UFW and committee to agree to the runoff.
Unlike last week, however, the group that gets the most votes this time will be the winner.
Ventura County labor lawyer Rob Roy said he doesn't see any way the UFW can overcome such a significant deficit, despite the aggressive organizing drive underway in Oxnard and Central California.
"The battleground is going to be the 'No Union' vote, and the UFW is going to have to pull almost all of that to win the election," said Roy, president of the pro-grower Ventura County Agricultural Assn. "I don't see how the UFW ever miscalculated this badly. They completely misjudged their support."
But UFW officials said there are other reasons for last week's poor showing.
UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said union officials are investigating reports of voter intimidation, including a flier they say was circulated the day before the election in Oxnard that identifies UFW supporters by name. In addition, Grossman said the UFW is looking into reports that foremen and supervisors were campaigning during the election on behalf of the committee.
"We always knew it would be close and it's exactly that," Grossman said. "We are working hard, not taking anything for granted and emphasizing our message, which is a vote for the UFW is a vote for changing the status quo."
Hoping to avoid any conflict in the fields, Coastal Berry President Ernie Farley announced Wednesday that he would have the company's foremen leave the fields during the two-day runoff election.
The company will also assign security guards to the fields to keep the peace, he said.
"We want to show our good faith by removing all field management, thereby eliminating any accusations of intimidation by the company or its personnel," Farley said in a prepared statement. "Everyone's primary objective should be promoting the safety and welfare of the work force that both unions are struggling to represent."
As the workday ended Wednesday, Leal and the five other organizers for the committee spilled out of an old orange van that doubles as their office and motel room. They were on hand to talk to workers and were met by UFW organizers who were out to do the same thing.
Organizers from both sides engaged in spirited conversations, with workers and each other.
"They like to say the majority of people are with them, but we'll see tomorrow," said Leal, handing out fliers to workers whose hands and clothing were stained red with strawberry juice.
On the other side, Dolores Huerta, UFW co-founder and vice president, greeted workers as they emerged from the deep rows, even walking alongside one man for more than a quarter of a mile to persuade him that the union was the way to go.
"I just want them to know the truth," said Huerta, sporting a bright red UFW T-shirt pinned with a couple of pro-UFW buttons. "It's not even about their vote. It's just important for them to know that the union can help change their lives."