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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Workers Push Mushroom Farm to Reinstate 15 Laid-Off Employees

Labor: In climate of union battle, possible boycott, Pictsweet official says more dismissals are ahead. Vons' contract loss is blamed for reduction.

September 12, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — Workers at the embattled Pictsweet Mushroom Farm demanded Monday that the company reinstate 15 workers laid off recently by the grower as a standoff over a new labor pact heats up.

A Pictsweet official, who defended the layoffs, said more dismissals are expected, because the company lost a contract with grocery giant Vons as the result of threats of a United Farm Workers union-led boycott of Pictsweet products.

But workers and UFW organizers see it differently. They say Pictsweet lost Vons' business because it has been producing poor quality mushrooms. They also argued that the layoffs were a ploy by the company to rattle employees and derail a months-long drive for a union contract at the Ventura mushroom farm.

About two dozen mushroom pickers and packers confronted plant manager Ruben Franco on Monday afternoon, urging him to reverse his decision and offering to cut their hours to ensure there will be plenty of work to go around.

"No one has to suffer," said 20-year employee Jesus Torres, showing Franco more than 100 yellow slips signed by workers calling for the reinstatement.

"We are all in agreement that our co-workers should return," he added, "and we are willing to share the work to make it happen."

Franco told the workers that is not likely to happen. He said the plant had to scale back production after Vons stopped buying Pictsweet mushrooms late last month. The farm was producing 400,000 pounds of mushrooms a week, he said, but is in the process of cutting to 300,000 pounds a week.

Franco said officials at Safeway, Vons' parent company, received a call late last month warning of a potential boycott of the grocery chain and decided to stop doing business with Pictsweet.

Vons accounted for 20% to 30% of the farm's sales, Franco said, so the company was forced to reduce both production and its work force.

"We're not going to produce more mushrooms than we can sell," he said.

UFW officials denied threatening to boycott Safeway, Vons or any other grocery chain. A boycott of Pictsweet products is being contemplated, they said, but no decision has been made.

Safeway officials could not be reached Monday for comment.

The dispute is the latest chapter in a long-running UFW campaign to hammer out a contract on behalf of 300 workers at the mushroom farm.

The UFW first won a contract at Pictsweet in 1975, but lost it in 1987, when the company was sold to Tennessee-based United Foods Inc.

Union leaders have tried unsuccessfully a number of times to negotiate a new contract, before deciding earlier this year to kick the campaign into high gear. Workers want a 5% wage increase for hourly employees, complete medical coverage for workers and their families, and dental and vision benefits.

That effort received a boost Monday when community members rallied outside the Pictsweet plant, calling for the company to stop the layoffs and start bargaining in good faith for a contract.

"These people make plenty of money for the company, and they should share in some of the wealth," said Oxnard resident Betty Eagle, a retired teacher who was accompanied by her husband, Norman.

The UFW has grappled in recent days with a move by some workers to decertify the union. But union supporters say that effort is sponsored by only a handful of employees and that most workers still desire UFW representation. This was evidenced by a group of pickers who agreed to chip in $5 a week to support employees laid off during the dispute, they said.

"We're not pressuring people to do things they don't want to do," mushroom picker Jose Luis Luna said. "Workers support the union because they know it will better their lives."

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