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Dark Days

At Mushroom Plant, Contract Struggle Hurts Both Sides


VENTURA — At the end of a narrow country road, downwind from a local golf course and the yacht clubs at the Ventura Harbor, trouble is growing in a sunless world set deep inside a series of cinder block bunkers.

From the road, you see only a few drab, whitewashed warehouses.

They are the kind of buildings easily unnoticed, but home to one of the most unusual agricultural operations in Southern California--the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm.

Here, workers spend their days turning loads of horse manure, trucked in regularly from the Santa Anita racetrack, into a nutrient-rich compost that sprouts more than 20 million pounds of mushrooms a year.

The farm is a factory in the fields, a year-round operation where workers labor in near total darkness, wearing miners' helmets to light their way and guide their movements.

Indeed, it is a lot like working in a coal mine.

The hours are filled with difficult and potentially dangerous toil, as workers scale wooden planter boxes up to 8 feet high to harvest the crop, hooking themselves to cables--like spiders dangling from webs--in case they slip and fall.

Whether they are picking button mushrooms or portabellos, the pay is the same--46 cents a bucket. So the workers scramble, their hands ablur and sweat slicking their faces, at what is described as one of the largest and most successful mushroom operations in the nation.

But trouble has been building behind these cinder block walls, an escalating conflict between big agribusiness in Tennessee and the 300 people who work here.

On one side is United Foods Inc., of Bells, Tenn., a nationwide grower and distributor of fresh and frozen vegetables, which recorded $200 million in sales last year. The company's principal brand name is Pictsweet.

On the other is the United Farm Workers union, trying to win a new contract for workers who have been without one for more than a decade.

It is a battle over pay and benefits and job security--a fight punctuated in recent weeks by calls for a boycott of Pictsweet products and a UFW campaign to convince grocery stores and other customers to contact the grower and encourage talks with the union.

So far it has resulted in 32 layoffs, with the possibility of more.

Another round of negotiations is scheduled for Monday, but few workers hold out hope of a quick ending.

The UFW first won a contract at the Olivas Park Drive mushroom farm in 1975 but lost it 12 years later when United Foods purchased the plant.

However, the UFW has continued to represent the workers, trying a number of times over the years to hammer out a new contract before kicking the campaign into high gear earlier this year.

Union representatives say they want the company to provide dental and vision coverage for the workers, less-costly medical insurance and a pension plan. They also want the company to boost wages by 5% for hourly employees and 5 cents a bucket for pickers paid at a piece rate.

Company Refuses to Discuss Talks

A company spokesman refused to discuss details of the ongoing negotiations but said workers at the Ventura facility have been treated fairly since United Foods took over and already receive wages and benefits comparable to those at other mushroom farms.

Mushroom picker Francisco Guerrero doesn't see it that way.

He knows that pickers earn up to $10,000 a year less than their counterparts at like-sized mushroom plants under UFW contract, according to union officials.

And, he says, the company's medical plan forces him to pay so much out of pocket that he can barely afford to go to the doctor or take his three children when they are sick.

Most distressing, Guerrero says, is what he perceives as a hostile attitude by management in recent months aimed at derailing the drive for a new labor pact.

Workers who are sick or injured on the job are paid little attention and treated with little respect, he said. The mind-set, he added, is that the mushrooms are more important than the workers.

"We have put many years of our lives into earning money for the company, and all they do is ignore our concerns," said Guerrero, 44, who earns about $24,000 a year after more than two decades of toiling in Pictsweet's rank-smelling growing houses.

"We are not asking for much," he said, "just enough to support our families."

At corporate headquarters in Bells, United Foods spokesman Don Dresser said he believes the company already does that and more.

In addition to paying competitive salaries and benefits, workers receive three weeks of paid vacation annually and raises every two years.

When it plucked the mushroom farm from bankruptcy 13 years ago, Pictsweet also instituted a profit-sharing plan, in which 20% of the plant's pretax profits are funneled back to workers every three months, he added.

In fact, Dresser contends that wages and benefits are better at the Ventura farm than they are at a Northern California mushroom plant where the UFW hammered out its most recent contract.

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