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Labor Board Gives UFW a Victory in Oxnard

Agriculture: United Farm Workers wins right to represent more than 700 strawberry pickers. Officials say it marks first time in 20 years they have had union leadership.


A long battle to unionize the county's strawberry pickers ended Thursday with the United Farm Workers winning the right to represent more than 700 workers in Oxnard.

A decision by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board to allow the UFW to represent the workers--despite losing an employee election last summer--marks the first time in two decades that strawberry workers in Ventura County have had union leadership, agriculture officials said.

The labor board ruled that pickers in Oxnard and Watsonville should be represented by separate bargaining units--the UFW and its rival union, the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee--because the two regions have different harvests and draw from different labor pools.

Now both the UFW and the Farm Workers Committee can begin contract talks on behalf of nearly 2,000 workers for Coastal Berry Co., the nation's largest strawberry grower.

Workers responded to the news with mixed reactions on Thursday. Leandro Ramirez, 42, blasted the UFW, saying it conspired with company owners to force workers to vote against the committee.

When harvesters Estela Gutierrez, 55, and her husband Eleazar, 51, heard Ramirez criticizing the UFW, they responded by chanting "Viva Chavez! Viva Chavez!" in honor of Cesar Chavez, the UFW's founder.

"I'm happy," said Estela, the mother of seven. "It means more money and more respect. More holidays and overtime."

Although officials in the much larger UFW organization were touting the board's decision as their victory, industry officials said it marks a big win for the Farm Workers Committee, a grass-roots group that formed about a year ago.

The committee will represent about 1,200 workers in Monterey and Santa Cruz counties, 500 more than the United Farm Workers.

"The story [is] not that some Goliath got some piece of the pie," said Rob Roy, Ventura County Agricultural Assn. president and general counsel. "The story is that David got a piece of the pie."

The committee, a small group of workers in Central California, faced a high-stakes battle against the UFW, which had unprecedented backing from the AFL-CIO to unionize more than 20,000 pickers in the state's $600-million-a-year strawberry industry.

The first task of the committee, said the group's attorney, Jim Gumberg, is to get 11 Watsonville workers fired last summer for opposing the UFW rehired.

"It's going to be an extensive negotiation," he said.

The state labor board's decision came one day after UFW officials announced they would essentially abandon the long and bitter fight with the committee by withdrawing a slew of objections to an election held last June.

"Now our only objective is seeing strawberry pickers work to produce genuine improvements in their lives through union contracts," UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said in a statement issued Wednesday.

Arturo was unavailable for comment Thursday, a spokesman said.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said the labor union cleared the way for contract talks by dropping the objections and securing representation of workers in Oxnard, Coastal Berry's fastest-growing operation.

"We could have pursued the objections," Grossman said. "But it could have also have delayed the certification" of the bargaining unit.

The battle between the two unions began after Coastal Berry workers in a 1998 statewide election voted to be represented by the committee. The committee also emerged victorious after a second election in May 1999 and a runoff in June. The UFW, however, won a majority of votes cast by the Oxnard harvesters.

"What the [state labor board] decision last week did was really grant the workers what they asked for," Grossman said.

After the June runoff, the UFW filed 234 objections to the committee with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board, setting off a lengthy hearing process.

State labor officials ultimately ruled in favor of the UFW. Coastal Berry Co. President Ernie Farley said negotiating contracts with two unions will be a challenge, but said the agreement is a relief to his company's 2,000 workers.

"I don't think it's been easy on any of [the workers]," Farley said. "And I'm sure they're all looking forward to having this part of the process behind them."

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