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Farm Dispute Delicate Issue for Oxnard

Pictsweet: Mayor wants to send both sides a clear message about resolving differences. Others on the council hope to avoid the appearance of taking sides.


OXNARD — Mayor Manuel Lopez wants to use the city's bully pulpit to hasten an end to the labor dispute between mushroom pickers and Pictsweet Farms.

On Tuesday the City Council will decide whether to send a letter to both the United Farm Workers and Pictsweet that urges the parties "to negotiate to resolve work issues and compensation to the mutual benefit of the employees and the company."

While Lopez said he wants to send a clear message to both sides that Oxnard will push hard to end the dispute, others on the council want to avoid the appearance of taking sides.

The latest letter is a compromise from the mayor's first draft, which was addressed solely to Pictsweet and asked the company to negotiate in good faith. Some councilmen opposed that wording at Tuesday's meeting.

"The impression is that they're not negotiating in good faith," Councilman Dean Maulhardt said at the meeting. "If you throw politics into it, you put people's backs against the wall. We are throwing more fuel on the fire."

Since 1987, the UFW has campaigned to increase pay and benefits for local mushroom workers. Supermarket chains like Vons and Ralphs have announced that they would no longer carry Pictsweet mushrooms until the company had resolved its dispute with the UFW.

In recent months the UFW has stepped up its campaign to win a contract at the Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura. About 300 workers at the farm have been without union representation for more than a decade.

The new letter is more neutral in tone, but carries the same message to both parties, Lopez said.

"I didn't see anything that was controversial," he said. "The thought is the same. The feeling is the same."

The UFW is all for Lopez's support of the workers, but unless the council is willing to take a stand on the issue, it won't do the workers much good, said Marc Grossman, a spokesman for the UFW.

"If it's pretty neutral," Grossman said of the council's letter, "I don't know how meaningful it is."

Other councilmen wondered if the city should be getting involved in the labor dispute at all.

"I don't appreciate being put in this situation," Councilman Tom Holden said at the meeting. "[But] if we don't make a statement, it's going to appear that we don't care."

Mayor Pro Tem John Zaragoza defended the mayor's letter. He said getting involved in the negotiations directly was not the council's intention.

"Whatever affects our residents affects us all," Zaragoza said. "I think it's incumbent upon us to assist our residents."

The new letter should let both sides know how the city feels without taking sides, Holden said.

"We can't really intervene in the process," he said. "It lets both the employer and the employees know that we are watching and we are monitoring the process."

Holden said the city could use the letter in the future as a sort of generic template to show that it is interested in seeing labor disputes resolved without taking sides.

The League of California Cities does not keep records on how often cities weigh in on labor disputes, but "this is not necessarily unprecedented," said Raechelle Cline, a spokeswoman for Sacramento-based organization. "This does occasionally happen."

The league does not advise its member cities on when they should involve themselves, Cline said.

"We leave that up to the individual cities," she said. "It really depends on the particular situation."

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