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UFW Election Failure Blow to Union's Prestige

Labor: Group insists it remains relevant to farm workers despite results in Oxnard and Watsonville.


OXNARD — Trudging out of the fields after a long day of work, Francisco Alcazar said it's easy to understand why the United Farm Workers union failed to win an election to represent pickers at the nation's largest strawberry grower.

UFW organizers are out of touch, he said.

"We don't need the union here," said Alcazar, 32, who cast his vote for the rival Coastal Berry of California Farmworkers Committee. "There was a time when workers needed the UFW, but no longer."

The election at Coastal Berry in Oxnard and Watsonville was supposed to be a shining moment for the resurgent UFW, the culmination of a three-year campaign to organize the state's $600-million-a-year strawberry industry.

But last week's UFW failure, despite unprecedented backing from the AFL-CIO, has grower representatives quietly celebrating the loss of prestige for a union that once seemed to embody Latino political power and middle-class aspirations.

Moreover, the UFW now finds itself having to prove that its distinctive red-and-black flag and cries of "Viva La Huelga!" are more than nostalgic reminders of another era.

"I think the UFW is running out of excuses," said Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., a local grower group. "This is a company that basically tied its hands behind its back and said, 'Organize us.' They had every advantage in the world going into this election and they still lost to an upstart group of farm workers."

But the UFW insists it's not going anywhere, and remains relevant to today's farm workers. "We are going to continue in this struggle, no matter how long it takes," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said.

Despite the fact the UFW poured as much as $90,000 a month into the contest, the Coastal Berry committee took 646 votes in the two-day election compared with 577 for the union.

That isn't enough for the committee to declare victory. But the best the UFW can hope for is a runoff election next week if the committee doesn't win the election outright after a state investigation into 60 challenged ballots.

If the committee wins the election, it would be considered a tremendous accomplishment for a loosely knit group formed only last year by workers in Central California. The group said it had grown tired of what it said was the UFW's heavy-handed organizing tactics.

The committee has no elected leader, says it won't collect dues and has only a handful of demands: bonuses at the end of the season and improved working conditions, such as cleaner bathrooms.

Committee Vice President Sergio Leal, who no longer even works for Coastal Berry, said workers simply felt the company already treated them fairly and that they themselves had the ability to take care of problems, when and if they arise.

The committee first proved its appeal last year, when it won an election. But the results were thrown out after a labor judge ruled the company had failed to notify 162 of its workers in Oxnard that they could cast ballots. The UFW refused to participate in that election, citing a climate of intimidation and violence.

"They [UFW] are a big organization," said Leal, whose father was a longtime UFW member. "They've got clout, they've got power, but the one thing they don't have is the people. If you are going to go into a war you are going to need people and that's what we have."

The vote was especially surprising in Oxnard, where the UFW was said to have its strongest support.

Although the UFW outpolled the committee in Ventura County, the margin was supposed to be much wider than 79 votes, especially since the committee's local organizing efforts consisted of four workers who on two occasions drove down from Watsonville in their van.

But UFW officials believe the reason the union didn't do better is because the other side, they contend, didn't play fair. The UFW is investigating a flier it says was circulated the day before the election in Oxnard. The flier identified UFW supporters by name, which union officials said intimidated workers.

UFW national Vice President Tanis Ybarra, in Oxnard to oversee organizing activities, said officials are investigating other potential irregularities, including reports that foremen and supervisors were campaigning during the election on behalf of the committee.

Ybarra said the UFW expected a difficult campaign at Coastal Berry and this setback does not mean the UFW is on the way out.

"We are fighting the agricultural industry, we are not just fighting one particular agricultural company," Ybarra said. "They are always saying the union is out, they've lost their usefulness. But workers continue to come to us, we continue to represent workers and we continue to improve the conditions for farm workers, even if we are not winning contracts."

For the UFW, the push at Coastal Berry is part of a larger campaign to recapture the spirit of union founder Cesar Chavez and rebuild the union's clout in the farm industry as a whole.

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