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VENTURA COUNTY NEWS

Ralphs Stops Orders From Mushroom Farm

Labor: Grocery chain becomes second to discontinue accepting Pictsweet brand due to workers' dispute with Ventura grower.

September 27, 2000|FRED ALVAREZ | TIMES STAFF WRITER

VENTURA — In a move that could result in dozens of layoffs, a second major grocery chain has discontinued orders for Pictsweet mushrooms, citing an escalating dispute between the grower and workers demanding a new contract.

Ralphs Grocery Co. informed Pictsweet officials last week that none of its 385 Ralphs or Food 4 Less stores in Southern California would do business with the Ventura mushroom farm until the labor problems are settled.

The action comes in response to a United Farm Workers-led boycott of Pictsweet products.

And it comes on the heels of a decision by Vons to quit stocking its shelves with Pictsweet mushrooms--a move that has resulted in a loss of production and more than 30 jobs at the Olivas Park Drive operation.

"We have told both sides that until they settle their differences, we would be purchasing mushrooms from other vendors," said Ralphs spokesman Terry O'Neil, adding that the grocery chain had purchased most of its mushrooms from Pictsweet.

Pictsweet officials could not be reached Tuesday for comment. It was unclear what effect the decision would have on production or exactly how many workers stand to lose their jobs as a result.

However, workers and UFW representatives say they have been told by the company to expect as many 50 additional layoffs in the next two weeks.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said that despite the rough going, most workers remain united behind the push for a new labor pact.

"Before the workers voted for a boycott of Pictsweet mushrooms, the UFW met with them and explained the potential consequences if the boycott was successful," Grossman said. "They said they didn't care. They are tired of the abuses and they wanted to go ahead."

Ralphs' action is the latest chapter in a long-running UFW campaign to hammer out a contract on behalf of 300 workers at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm, one of the largest and most successful mushroom operations in the nation.

The UFW first won a contract at Pictsweet in 1975 but lost it 12 years later when the company was sold to Tennessee-based United Foods Inc.

The UFW, however, has continued to represent the workers, trying a number of times over the years to negotiate a new pact before kicking the campaign into high gear earlier this year.

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

Company officials have maintained that workers at the Ventura facility already receive wages and benefits comparable to those at other mushroom farms. Workers also get three weeks of paid vacation and participate in a quarterly profit-sharing plan.

A negotiation session held Monday did little to close the gap between the two sides, UFW organizers said.

Frustrated with the pace of negotiations, UFW leaders recently escalated protest activities.

They have backed the workers' call for a nationwide boycott of Pictsweet products.

And they have been contacting Pictsweet customers--Pizza Hut, Ralphs and Vons, among them--to urge company officials to contact the grower and encourage talks with the union.

In fact, that's how Ralphs officials learned about the labor problems in Ventura, O'Neil said.

He said Ralphs' action does not mean that the company favors one side over the other. And he said company officials have made it clear that orders for Pictsweet mushrooms could resume just as soon as the labor fight is settled.

"We have had a good relationship with Pictsweet for several years," O'Neil said. "We just want them to settle whatever labor disagreements they have."

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