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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

UFW Fails to Win Despite Local Support

May 28, 1999|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

Despite solid support from Oxnard laborers, the United Farm Workers suffered an apparent setback Thursday in a nearly four-year campaign to unionize pickers at one of the nation's largest strawberry growers.

The UFW got 309 votes from workers in Ventura County compared with 230 for its smaller rival, Coastal Berry of California Farmworkers Committee. However, that margin was reversed in Salinas and Watsonville, where the UFW only managed 268 votes while the committee received 416.

UFW leaders in Oxnard, who kept a vigil until early Thursday, when the last ballots were counted, tried to remain optimistic about the results, noting that resolution of 60 disputed ballots could still determine the outcome of the two-day election.

At the same time, they said they were pleased that so many Ventura County laborers supported the UFW.

"We had pretty solid support in the Oxnard area," said UFW Vice President Dolores Huerta, who went into the fields around Oxnard after the balloting Wednesday to continue to whip up support for the union's cause. "The bottom line is we still don't know what's going to happen yet. We just have to keep working at it."

However, Ventura County labor lawyer Rob Roy said he was surprised that the UFW didn't have more support in Oxnard, especially considering that the union called for the election earlier than planned because of concerns that the harvest was peaking sooner than expected and that local workers might be leaving the area.

Roy saw the UFW's 79-vote margin in Ventura County as a sign that the union was weak even in what was supposed to be its stronghold.

"I thought the UFW would have more votes down here; that's the reason they called for the election so early," said Roy, president of the pro-grower Ventura County Agricultural Assn.

"Everything has been in the union's favor and they still lost to an upstart group of farm workers," he said. "What does that tell you about their support?"

Oxnard workers have been key to the UFW's historic campaign to win a contract at Coastal Berry as part of a larger push to gain a foothold in California's tough-to-organize strawberry industry.

The industry has experienced rapid growth in Ventura County in recent years, an agricultural boom reflected at Coastal Berry's Oxnard operation.

The company is farming 330 acres locally this season compared with 110 acres last year. In addition, about 650 of Coastal Berry's 1,500 employees work in Oxnard. Last year, the company employed about 220 workers in this area.

UFW officials said growth in the local work force is responsible to some degree for the union's success in Oxnard.

Organizing drives last year by the UFW and the committee were marred by brief episodes of violence in the fields around Watsonville. However, many Oxnard workers are new to the company this year and know little about that history, UFW officials said.

Workers at the company--which farms about 1,200 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries--narrowly voted last year to be represented by the committee, which was formed in 1998 in response to what some workers said were the UFW's heavy-handed organizing tactics.

The UFW protested the vote, which was overturned when a state labor judge ruled that the company failed to notify 162 of its workers in Oxnard that they could cast ballots.

This year's election also may hinge on a technicality, once again generated out of Oxnard.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said Thursday that he intends to investigate reports that a flier had been circulated in Oxnard shortly before the election identifying UFW supporters by name, a move he believes may have been meant to intimidate workers.

The flier, which purports to come from Oxnard-area ranchers, tells Coastal Berry workers that they receive good pay and good benefits without a union. And it urges workers not to support the UFW because the union would destroy the company.

Rodriguez fears that some laborers may have changed their vote because of the flier.

"If they feel their jobs are in jeopardy, that has a significant impact," he said. "That sends a chill among workers when they hear something like that."

The best the UFW can hope for in this week's showdown is to force a runoff election with the committee.

The committee can win the election outright, and thus the right to represent workers, if it receives credit for 36 of the challenged ballots.

Officials with the state labor board said it could take several days to decide whether a runoff election is needed.

* UFW SETBACK: UFW supporters were disappointed by this week's vote. C1

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