Since June, the United Farm Workers have urged consumers to boycott Gallo wine. Today, the union plans to use a Gallo vintage to toast the signing of a new labor agreement with California's largest winery.
UFW officials heralded the contract as an important win in the union's effort to build its presence in the state's $15-billion wine industry.
"We now have the largest winery under contract, and it is a good contract," said Arturo Rodriguez, president of the UFW.
For E.&J. Gallo Winery of Modesto, the deal reached this week ends a fractious two-year battle with the union that represents 308 employees and contract laborers who work in the vineyards and operate machinery at its Sonoma County operations.
"Gallo believes it made a very generous and fair contract proposal, and we are pleased that the employees ratified the company's offer," said Matt Gallo, the winery's vice president, coastal operations.
Gallo, which employs more than 4,400 workers, produced about 58 million cases of California wine last year, accounting for about 1 of every 4 bottles made in the state.
The Sonoma operations produce its high-end wines, including the Gallo of Sonoma, MacMurray Ranch and Frei Brothers labels.
Including a unilateral raise Gallo granted in April, the Sonoma workers will see their base hourly pay rise 9.5% to $8.98 by the end of the 30-month contract.
In addition, 228 contract employees will for the first time have the right to file grievances over discipline and seniority issues.
"That's a very significant gain," said Don Villarejo, a farm labor policy consultant in Davis, Calif.
Contract workers have represented a conundrum for unions such as the UFW because the 30-year-old Agricultural Labor Relations Act does not recognize labor contract companies as employers.
The state law was designed to prevent farmers from escaping collective bargaining talks with contract workers but in fact placed that class of employees into a labor no man's land.
"It has been hard for labor unions to figure out what to do with contract workers," Villarejo said. "They don't want to make them second-class citizens."
Indeed, the dispute at the company's Gallo of Sonoma division had its roots in the contract worker issue. The UFW's previous contract guaranteed the same wages for all workers but provided health benefits, grievance procedures and vacation only for those hired directly by Gallo.
Nonetheless, all of the direct and contract workers pay the same union dues of 2% of wages. That disparity in benefits fueled efforts by some workers to oust the UFW in 2003.
The state Agricultural Labor Relations Board threw out an election to decertify the union, finding that a Gallo foreman improperly influenced workers to sign a petition requesting the election.
The ballots remain unopened and uncounted. Gallo says it still has the right to pursue its appeal of the ruling.
When the new contract is signed this week, contract workers will have most of the same rights that Gallo's employees are accorded, including the same pay rates and the ability to file grievances.
But employees will receive a 70% reduction in their health insurance premium co-payment to $26.68 for family coverage, saving the typical worker about $760 a year, whereas contractors will receive a $400 bonus in lieu of medical coverage.
California's farm industry is wrestling with wage and benefit disparities between contract laborers and direct employees who frequently do the same picking, pruning and other farm chores.
Villarejo said labor contract companies had grown through the decades to become significant businesses with fleets of buses to transport workers and, in some cases, their own harvesting equipment.
He said changes in the law might be needed so that contract laborers, who in many instances don't even know the name of the farm where they are working, would have ready access to the same collective bargaining rights under the labor laws as do direct-hire workers.
For now, the new contract will demonstrate the UFW's "commitment" to representing contract workers and will help in its organizing efforts, Rodriguez said.
Although the boycotts and organizing campaigns led by the UFW's Cesar Chavez in the 1960s and '70s popularized the cause of farmworkers and helped pressure dozens of growers to sign union contracts, the union remains a minor player in the wine business.
About 50% of Gallo's employees have collective bargaining contracts under locals belonging to the United Food and Commercial Workers; the Glass, Molders, Pottery, Plastics & Allied Workers; and the steelworkers unions. The workers in its Gallo of Sonoma division are the company's only UFW members.
Elsewhere, the UFW has 500 members in Napa County, where there are about 400 wineries, and 600 members at wine grape growers in other parts of the state.
Rodriguez called the Gallo contract a first step toward building on that base.