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Berry Field Hands Seek Union Vote

Labor: UFW petitions for election, which could come Monday, after a majority of grower's workers indicate they want to organize.


The United Farm Workers union has filed for an election to represent pickers at the nation's largest strawberry grower, a move that could put hundreds of Oxnard field hands in a position to help resolve a long-running battle to unionize California's strawberry industry.

The election petition was filed Monday with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board after a majority of the 1,240 workers at Coastal Berry Co. in Oxnard and in Central California indicated they wanted to vote on union representation.

If the petition is approved, that vote would have to be held within seven days of the filing. An official with the state labor board said the election will probably take place Monday.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said union leaders had planned to wait until later in the season before seeking an election but accelerated that timetable because the Oxnard harvest is peaking sooner than expected.

Because of rapid growth in the local strawberry industry, the Oxnard workers are key to a UFW campaign to win a union contract at Coastal Berry and, on a larger scale, establish a foothold in the state's tough-to-organize strawberry industry.

"The company has grown dramatically down south, and that's also where the industry is growing as well," Grossman said. "If we don't have an election soon, a lot of those folks working in the Ventura County area will be done with work and won't be around to vote."

Indeed, no strawberry-producing area of the state has experienced more growth in recent years than Ventura County.

With nearly 6,700 acres in production this season, the county has seen a 50% increase in acreage dedicated to strawberries since 1994, and Coastal Berry reflects that growth. The company is farming 330 acres in Ventura County this season compared with 110 acres last year.

About 650 of Coastal Berry's employees work in the Oxnard area. Last year the company employed about 220 workers locally.

On Tuesday, company officials were out early talking to workers in Oxnard and Watsonville, letting them know that representatives from the state labor board would be visiting to tell them more about the impending election.

At the same time, Coastal Berry President Ernie Farley said his office staff was busy gathering all the information necessary to hold the election, including a list of all employees eligible to vote.

"There's an awful lot of things that need to get done before the election goes off," Farley said. "This is such quick news, we are working really hard to make sure everything gets done right."

Such care is crucial in light of the last union election at Coastal Berry.

Workers at the company--which farms about 1,200 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties--narrowly voted last year to join the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee, a UFW rival.

The UFW protested the results, arguing that the election should be invalidated because the company failed to notify 162 of its workers in Oxnard that they could cast ballots.

A labor judge agreed and threw out the results in November. And earlier this month, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board upheld the judge's ruling in one of its first acts under the new Democratic state leadership.

Ventura County labor lawyer Rob Roy said he is not surprised that the UFW moved for an election so quickly after the board's decision.

"They were really waiting for that decision to give them the green light," said Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. "The big issue now is whether they are going to be the only ones on the ballot."

Now that the UFW has filed for an election, Roy said, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee could submit a petition of its own and be on the same ballot. To win the right to represent workers, a union must win the support of more than 50% of eligible voters.

The UFW could encounter other obstacles as well. Even UFW officials acknowledge that by many measures, Coastal Berry is considered a good employer. The average worker earns $8 to $8.50 an hour and receives full medical and dental benefits paid for by the company.

But Grossman said the union delivers something the company cannot: job security.

"Beyond the money and benefits, the biggest advantages workers get is that they don't have to beg for their jobs at the beginning of the harvest every year," he said. "They have that job and they have the opportunity to advance, based on seniority, when better jobs come open."

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