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UFW Wins Key Election at Berry Firm

The union, which already represents workers at the Oxnard operation, will represent nearly 900 pickers in Watsonville.

February 11, 2003|Fred Alvarez | Times Staff Writer

The United Farm Workers union has quietly won the right to represent nearly 900 strawberry workers in Northern California, more than doubling the number of berry pickers now under the UFW's banner from Watsonville to Oxnard.

It is a surprising turn of fortune for the farm workers union, which three years ago lost a representation vote for the same group of laborers at Coastal Berry Co., the nation's largest strawberry grower.

Following a bruising battle, the UFW earned the right in May 2000 to represent workers at Coastal Berry's Oxnard operation. But it lost a bid to represent the company's workforce in Watsonville to a rival union made up of company field hands.

Now the UFW represents more than 1,600 workers in both areas, pulling off a labor coup that marks the high point of a long-running campaign to carve a foothold in the state's tough-to-organize strawberry industry.

It also marks the latest in a series of UFW successes, from a string of election victories to passage last year of landmark legislation aimed at resolving deadlocked farm labor disputes.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said the change at Coastal Berry in Watsonville was driven by workers' dissatisfaction with the rival union. But despite the magnitude of the victory, he said union leaders had been trying to keep it under wraps until a new contract could be hammered out.

"Workers knew they weren't getting what they wanted, and that was good representation," Rodriguez said. "We wanted to wait until there was a [contract at Coastal Berry] and then share the news with everyone in order to give farm workers faith that it could be done."

Company officials and union organizers are negotiating a new contract, and UFW officials hope to finalize a deal next month.

Some farm industry leaders wonder whether the union's low-profile posture has more to do with a desire to downplay the maneuvering that took place to bring the Watsonville workers into the UFW fold. Until a few months ago, those workers had been represented by the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee, an upstart group created by field workers with no money, no experience and no desire to join the union of Cesar Chavez.

But in a Nov. 13 election, prompted by a pro-union push to decertify the committee, workers voted overwhelmingly to forsake the committee in favor of UFW representation. A committee representative challenged the results, arguing that the election should be set aside because it was not conducted at a time when at least 50% of the peak workforce was available to take part, as required by state labor law.

Fred Capuyan, regional director for the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in Salinas, initially agreed. But he changed his mind after the UFW brought to his attention a 1976 case in which the labor board let stand an election that came close to meeting the 50% threshold. According to the UFW, with 412 workers eligible to vote on Nov. 13, the workforce was within 1% of meeting the 50% requirement. "I read the case law, did the research on it and determined that it applied in this case," Capuyan said.

Informed of Capuyan's decision, the committee withdrew its objections on Dec. 6, and three days later the UFW was certified as the exclusive bargaining representative. Farm industry attorneys question Capuyan's conclusions, arguing that the law specifically requires that the 50% threshold be met. In addition, they find it curious that the union's normally vocal public relations machine hasn't uttered a word about the victory, long considered key in the organization's push to rebuild membership and support.

"I would think that the UFW, if they won an election of this magnitude, would be shouting it from the rooftops," said Rob Roy, president of the pro-grower Ventura County Agricultural Assn. "The fact that they are flying so low under the radar on this gives me pause for concern."

Union officials say the win at Coastal Berry simply reflects workers' dissatisfaction with the committee's representation. Workers in Watsonville were paid less than their counterparts in Oxnard and had less job security, according to union leaders.

By the start of last year's growing season, UFW officials say scores of Watsonville workers had contacted the union about signing up.

"One thing we've learned, it doesn't matter how much we want it, it's not going to happen if the workers don't want it," Rodriguez said. "They took it upon themselves to really move this thing forward."

In some ways, the change at Coastal Berry can be tied to the UFW's larger organizing drive in the strawberry industry, a campaign launched six years ago and viewed as a crucial test of the union's ability to regain its clout in California agriculture. Once a formidable national presence, with more than 80,000 members at its peak in 1973, the union had suffered decades of declining membership and was barely at 20,000 members when Chavez died 20 years later.

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