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UFW Plans Wine Boycott in Effort to Pressure Gallo

June 13, 2005|Miriam Pawel | Times Staff Writer

The United Farm Workers plans to call on consumers Tuesday to boycott Gallo wine until the company negotiates a more generous contract at its Sonoma winery.

Echoing an appeal made decades ago by Cesar Chavez, the union hopes to gain leverage in the stalled negotiations and also draw attention to the plight of farmworkers hired through middlemen.

"We have not seen the Gallo family willing to sit down and bargain in good faith," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, calling the boycott a last resort. "We think that's the only thing that hopefully is going to bring them to the table."

Gallo spokesman John Segale said it is the UFW that has been intransigent, at the expense of its members, who have been without a contract since November 2003. "Their delays and their actions continue to hurt the workers they represent," he said.

Boycotts are a tactic long associated with the UFW, but the current one will differ significantly from the legendary campaigns of the 1960s and '70s, which popularized the cause of farmworkers and helped pressure dozens of growers to sign union contracts.

The early boycotts relied on farmworkers and volunteers who fanned out across the United States and Canada to walk picket lines outside stores and urge shoppers to shun businesses selling wine, grapes, lettuce and other nonunion produce.

The UFW's 21st century boycott will rely primarily on Internet networks and e-mail lists from political, labor and environmental groups.

"We think we can be very effective at going and utilizing the Internet and really reaching out to those groups that we know we'll get a favorable response from," Rodriguez said, adding that he is confident those audiences will stop buying Gallo wine. "More than anything, they just need to know."

The boycott is the latest chapter in more than three decades of very public and bitter battles between the UFW and Gallo. The current dispute at Gallo of Sonoma, a subsidiary of E&J Gallo Winery, centers on the firm's reliance on farm labor contractors, who supply most of the seasonal workers to pick grapes and tend vines.

The UFW's last contract guaranteed the same wages for all workers but provided health benefits, grievance procedures and vacation only for those hired directly by Gallo. But all the workers -- about 85 Gallo employees and as many as 220 seasonal contract workers -- pay the same 2% union dues. That disparity in benefits fueled efforts by some workers to oust the UFW in 2003.

Benefits for the contract workers, such as a bonus in lieu of medical coverage, have been a major sticking point in negotiations.

"We could have gone and signed a contract without including the seasonal employees; we decided it was more important to stand up for the principle," Rodriguez said.

Others, including union leaders, point out a more pragmatic concern: Another two-tiered contract would almost certainly prompt a second attempt to vote the union out.

The boycott would follow months of UFW efforts to exert public pressure on Gallo, one of the world's largest wineries. Since last summer, the union has launched e-mail protests against events that featured Gallo wine; solicited letters from national labor leaders; collected thousands of signatures through online petitions; set up an anti-Gallo website designed by cartoonist Lalo Alcaraz; and won a resolution of support from the Los Angeles City Council.

The union, which has only a fraction of the members it once had, will heavily invoke its storied history in the boycott. "Cesar always said the good thing about a boycott is that's something you can do every single day," Rodriguez said. "Everybody can participate in a boycott."

It was a massive march and rally against Gallo in 1975 that spurred California to adopt the nation's only law giving farmworkers the right to unionize. Using that law, the UFW won an election in 1994 to represent agricultural workers at Gallo of Sonoma, which produces higher-end wines. The contract was not signed until 2000.

The sides have made little progress since that contract expired more than 18 months ago, and each blames the other. The last negotiating session at the end of August opened with anti-UFW Gallo workers picketing outside and ended with Rodriguez walking out in frustration with Matt Gallo, the subsidiary's vice president.

Gallo spokesman Segale said the UFW has since ignored six letters over seven months asking to resume negotiations.

"Rather than negotiate, when a counter-position was made, they just said: 'Forget it. You guys aren't interested,' and they got up and left," he said.

Another negotiating session is set for June 21, a week after the boycott announcement.

Both sides agree on one thing: E&J Gallo Winery has a history of good relationships with the unions that represent other Gallo workers.

UFW officials say that bolsters their contention that the company is singling out farmworkers.

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