Noting that UFW members are almost all of Mexican descent and many are undocumented, Rodriguez said: "I have to believe they just do not respect them the same way they respect employees from other operations."
Jorge Rivera, the union's chief negotiator, was blunter: "I think it's becoming a question of racism. What else could it be?"
Segale called that suggestion offensive and said Gallo, with more than 4,400 employees, has been honored by the U.S. Department of Labor for its diversity programs.
"They're going to call for a boycott against a company that's the most unionized in the industry," he said. "I don't understand that thinking."
Since the contract expired, all provisions have remained in effect. With the union's agreement, Gallo gave workers a 20-cent raise in April, raising the minimum pay to $8.38 per hour.
Gallo is one of many agricultural companies that have found it increasingly attractive to employ contractors who then hire, assign and pay workers, and provide workers' compensation insurance.
The practice offers even less job security for farmworkers in an always-precarious, seasonal industry. The state licenses contractors, but officials agree the system makes it much harder to enforce labor laws, such as minimum wage, mandatory overtime and breaks. By the time complaints are filed or investigated, the workers are likely to be on a different farm or not working at all.
The 30-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which governs union elections and protects union activity in the fields, makes contract employees part of the bargaining unit. That means they vote on whether to be represented by a union and are covered by contracts.
But because contractors can rotate workers frequently, union organizing is more difficult. UFW officials charge that Gallo is deliberately increasing the number of contract workers to force the union out, an assertion Gallo denies.
The contract dispute takes place against the backdrop of a long-running fight at Gallo over the union's legitimacy.
The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board threw out a March 13, 2003, election, finding that a Gallo foreman improperly influenced workers to sign a petition requesting the election. Gallo has appealed, and the ballots remain unopened.