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Union Takes Attack on Gallo to Net

United Farm Workers threatens a boycott if demands aren't met as contract talks resume.

August 03, 2004|Lee Romney | Times Staff Writer

SAN FRANCISCO — In the midst of contract talks, the United Farm Workers is escalating attacks on Gallo of Sonoma with the launch today of an Internet campaign aimed at securing stronger benefits for fieldworkers.

Workers in the winery's Sonoma fields have been without a contract since November. Negotiations are expected to resume Wednesday, with union officials vowing to repeat the 1970s Gallo wine boycott if their demands are not met.

The campaign brings the relationship between the union and the division of the world's largest winemaker to new lows at a time when a shifting agricultural labor force has made field organizing increasingly difficult.

"We're preparing to escalate the campaign to do whatever it takes," said union President Arturo Rodriguez, who will call on the Los Angeles City Council today to approve a resolution on the workers' behalf.

Gallo executives were said to be preparing for Wednesday's session and unavailable for comment Monday. But John Segale, a company spokesman, said Gallo officials "are committed to reaching an agreement, and the UFW's public campaign against us is totally unwarranted."

The union built by the late Cesar Chavez won an election to represent Gallo workers in 1994. It took six more years to negotiate a contract. But relations deteriorated last year when workers sought to kick out the union. An administrative law judge ruled in December that Gallo officials had illegally influenced that decertification election. An appeal by the winemaker is pending. The union, meanwhile, faces complaints -- which it denies -- that it improperly coerced workers and bargained in bad faith.

The contract has expired and Gallo officials declined to extend it during negotiations, now in their ninth month.

A key sticking point has been the fate of workers employed through farm labor contractors, who constitute more than 60% of the workforce of Gallo of Sonoma, a unit of E.J. Gallo Winery. While covered by collective bargaining agreements, the workers were granted few benefits under the previous contract and union officials say they have been offered less in current talks. While they pay dues, they received modest raises, but no sick days, vacation pay or medical benefits.

"They're doing the most difficult work out there," Rodriguez said. "We'll do whatever we need to do to ensure that those workers get representation."

Segale said the union rejected Gallo's offer "to allow eligible employees of our [farm labor contractors] to become direct hires and obtain healthcare as well." Union officials counter that the company's legal residency and credit check requirements make the process prohibitive for many contract workers.

Union organizers hope the campaign, at GalloUnfair.com, will help increase its national exposure and reach a younger audience.

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