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UFW Looks for Victory in the Strawberry Fields

Labor: After 3-year fight, California pickers' votes are counted in showdown between the union and upstart rival.

May 27, 1999|NANCY CLEELAND and FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITERS

The United Farm Workers union on Wednesday appeared confident to score its first major victory in a costly and frustrating three-year campaign to organize laborers in California's burgeoning strawberry industry.

State officials counted union-certification ballots into the night from 1,500 employees of Watsonville-based Coastal Berry Co., the nation's largest strawberry grower, which has been torn by fighting between supporters of the UFW and a small upstart union for nearly a year.

The outcome is seen as a crucial test of the UFW's strength and credibility six years after the death of its charismatic founder Cesar Chavez.

Once a forceful presence in the labor and civil rights movements, the UFW suffered declining membership in the latter years of Chavez's tenure as the organization moved away from the grass-roots organizing that had given the union its clout.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, who is also Chavez's son-in-law, has sought to shore up the emaciated and demoralized union by returning to its roots of field organizing.

No official tally was available at press time, as the count was delayed because of a dispute over ballots. But UFW supporters made up a majority of the crowd waiting for voting results at the Agricultural Labor Relations Board offices in Salinas on Wednesday night. Several pro-UFW strawberry workers said conversations with other voters had them confident that the vote would go their way.

The UFW's challenger is the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee, an upstart group organized by employees of the company, which has operations in Watsonville and Oxnard.

UFW leaders claim the rival group is a sham set up by growers determined to stop the union, and they say it is just one example of the obstacles thrown at it by an intransigent industry that pays workers poorly and flouts labor laws.

But supporters of the committee--which won an election last summer that was later thrown out by the state--say the UFW has lost the confidence of farm workers, who don't want to spend 2% of their earnings on dues.

Indeed, some workers said they voted for a third option: No union at all.

"The ranch is good to the workers. The people treat us well," said Fred Alcalar, 32, of the firm's Oxnard operation. "We don't need any union. We just need to be left alone."

For the UFW, far more is at stake in this vote than the right to represent a single strawberry enterprise.

The UFW has made recent inroads into agricultural sectors such as mushrooms and roses, helping to boost its nationwide membership to 27,000. That's a far cry from the 80,000 workers the union represented in the mid-1970s, but it's a turnaround from its ebb of 21,000 members at the time of Chavez's death.

Rodriguez, the UFW president, specifically targeted the state's strawberry industry, which is geographically concentrated on California's central coast and has been growing by about $100 million a year. The value of California's strawberry crop reached $782 million last year.

About 20,000 seasonal farm workers toil in California's strawberry fields. Strawberry picking is among the most onerous of agricultural jobs, and one of the lowest-paid, with wages averaging $230 a week.

"This is stoop labor," said Don Villarejo, director of the California Institute for Rural Studies at Davis. "Half the workers' [compensation] claims are for permanent back or muscular-skeletal injuries. And strawberry cultivation uses the most pesticides of any crop in California. This is not pleasant work."

Still, of all the state's growers--and they number in the hundreds--Coastal Berry stands out as a worker-friendly employer. Average pay is $8.40 an hour, nearly $2 more than the state average. The company also offers paid medical and dental plans.

"We're proud of the fact that we have an 85% return rate," said company President Ernie Farley, referring to the percentage of seasonal farm hands that come back to work in the company's fields each year.

Nevertheless, Coastal Berry was targeted because, with 1,500 workers, it is by far the state's largest direct employer of strawberry workers. From there, the work force size drops quickly, to 300 employees or fewer. Many growers struggle from season to season, subject to the whims of the market. Labor constitutes one of the few costs they can control.

In going up against industry-wide opposition, Rodriguez found a strong ally in AFL-CIO President John J. Sweeney, who poured hundreds of thousands of dollars into the effort and sent scores of Spanish-speaking organizers into the fields.

In addition, the owners of Coastal Berry pledged to remain neutral in the union fight. In fact, some other growers complain that the company has been overly sympathetic to the UFW.

Despite that support, however, the UFW's strawberry campaign stalled. To date, it has signed only one contract, with a small organic grower near Santa Cruz that employs fewer than 50 field workers.

Critics have pointed to those results as proof that the union is out of touch with workers.

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