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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Labor Board Assails Mushroom Farm

Agriculture: Pictsweet has been ordered to stop pressuring its workers to reject their union and to tell them about the state ruling.

October 24, 2000|HOLLY J. WOLCOTT | SPECIAL TO THE TIMES

VENTURA — The state labor board has ordered the owners of Pictsweet Mushroom Farm to stop pressuring and threatening workers to sign a petition to oust their union.

Workers were told they would lose their jobs and the company would close if they failed to reject representation by the United Farm Workers union, according to a complaint filed with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

In its complaint, union officials accused a company supervisor of telling an employee, "The company would rather move to Mexico because the workers are cheaper in Mexico, rather than sign a contract" with the UFW.

Additionally, union officials accused company supervisors of unlawfully assisting and promoting circulation of the petition during work hours and conducting surveillance of workers who signed petitions.

In one case, according to the complaint, a company supervisor offered an employee a month's pay in exchange for her signature on the petition rejecting the union.

In a ruling signed late last week, the labor board found in favor of the union and ordered the Ventura mushroom grower to stop the unfair labor practices and take several steps to notify employees about the ruling.

"The company has been found to have been doing these things, this harassment and trying to bribe the workers," said Lupe Martinez, a UFW spokesman. "[This complaint] means the workers are not in favor" of decertification.

The board ordered Pictsweet to "cease and desist" any activity that was "interfering with, restraining or coercing any agricultural employee in the exercise of rights guaranteed" by the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

The company was also ordered to mail all employees a copy of the state board's order, post it at the company's production facility on Olivas Park Drive and give a copy of the order to any employees hired during the next year.

The company was also told to read the board's order and answer questions about it on company time and pay employees "a reasonable rate of compensation" during this presentation.

By late November, the company must also notify the state board in writing of the steps it has taken to comply with the order and continue to do so until "full compliance is achieved," according to the ruling.

The board's decision is the latest round in a long-running labor dispute between Pictsweet and its workers.

Pictsweet employees voted in the early 1980s to have the UFW represent them, but union officials say the company has negotiated in bad faith since being sold a dozen years ago to Tennessee-based United Foods Inc.

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Martinez, the union spokesman, said the UFW has tried a number of times over the years to negotiate a new contract for workers. He said Monday night that a large majority of the 300 employees continue to support union efforts.

Union representatives say they want the company to boost wages, provide dental and vision coverage and create a pension plan for workers.

Company leaders, though, say workers receive a fair wage and benefits comparable to other mushroom farms.

Talks between union representatives and company negotiators have been sporadic and unsuccessful.

So far, the supermarket chains Vons and Ralphs have announced they will no longer carry Pictsweet mushrooms until the company resolves its dispute with the UFW.

This prompted the loss of more than 30 jobs at the company.

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