Violence, Company Union Hurt Strawberry Campaign

Until July, it seemed that the United Farm Workers union was on the verge of a breakthrough in its campaign to organize California's strawberry workers. A heated three-year campaign had met with significant successes, including a neutrality agreement with Coastal Berry, the largest strawberry grower in the country. With a majority of Coastal Berry workers visibly in support of the union, the UFW was poised to call an election.

But out of cunning or desperation, the anti-UFW forces kicked into high gear and pulled the rug out from under the campaign.

The contras, or anti-union forces, at Coastal Berry are concentrated at the Silliman ranch--one of four or five Coastal Berry ranches. At Silliman, the foremen are brothers and job assignments are handed out to relatives and friends.

Drawing on support from these friends and from better-paid truckers and box-counters, the contras organized a work stoppage on July 1, demanding the company oppose the union. UFW supporters began picking, but were attacked by the contras. Three workers were hospitalized. Camera crews captured one supervisor's wife slamming UFW supporter Sandra Rocha in the head with a box of strawberries.

The contras then faced off with police. Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, one of the contra leaders, was arrested for attacking a deputy with a pipe. But no charges were ever pressed against Fernandez.

Earlier that morning, Coastal Berry foremen Roberto Chavez, Joel Lobato, and others had been overheard plotting violence against workers if they did not participate in the work stoppage.

In response to the violence, the UFW organized a march and demanded that Coastal Berry take action against the foremen and workers responsible for it. The company refused.

ELECTION

The UFW was clearly shaken by these developments, fearing a repeat of a 1983 incident when 19-year-old farm worker Rene Lopez was shot to death just after voting in a state-conducted union election. Still, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez was confident enough to tell strawberry workers from other farms that the union was planning on calling an election at Coastal Berry within a few days.

All that changed July 16, when Fernandez filed a petition for a representation election as the representative of the newly formed Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee. Foremen and anti-UFW activists circulated petitions for the election, and some workers were allegedly forced to sign blank petitions.

At the Silliman ranch, with foremen present, contras threatened any workers who didn’t sign on. The lunch break was extended to ensure that everyone’s name was accounted for.

The UFW asked California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board to throw out the petitions on the grounds that the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee was a grower front group that had beaten and intimidated workers.

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The UFW also presented evidence that Fernandez was a long-time activist for the Agricultural Workers of America, an anti-union group that receives funding from several key strawberry growers, the Western Growers Association, and other industry groups. This and other evidence suggests that these events were merely the most successful attempts in a campaign to derail the neutrality agreement between Coastal Berry and the United Farm Workers. Earlier this year, the Western Growers Association sued Coastal Berry, claiming that it was in collusion with the UFW and "against worker free choice." A similar complaint filed with the ALRB was thrown out.

The ALRB granted the Coastal Berry committee an election, ignoring the evidence and downplaying the fact that 200 Coastal Berry workers were engaged in a sit-in at ALRB offices to block the election. ALRB Salinas Regional Director Fred Capuyan said the Board allowed the election because it didn’t want to see any more violence at Coastal Berry.

COLLUSION WITH GROWERS

Voting took place July 23. The Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee got 523 votes, while 410 voted for no union.

Following their victory, CBFC members publicly stated that they had no intention of negotiating higher wages or benefits.

The UFW had refused to be on the ballot. "We won’t give any legitimacy to this company union by appearing on the ballot with them," said Rodriguez. Had the union been on the ballot, it would have risked a loss due to a split vote--and that would have been an even more serious predicament. As it is, if the vote is certified the UFW will have to stay out of the fields for an entire year--but that seems an unlikely development.

Immediately after the vote, 700 Coastal Berry workers from three other ranches walked off their jobs for two days to protest the vote. They returned under the threat of mass dismissals.

The UFW then turned to its political allies, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board was called before the legislature’s Joint Labor Committee to explain itself. The ALRB agreed that there had been irregularities, but claimed it was their practice to vote first and litigate later. "The ALRB is dysfunctional. It’s clearly in collusion with the growers.'' said committee chair Hilda Solis.

After the hearing, it was discovered that 162 workers at Coastal Berry’s Oxnard ranch had not been given the opportunity to vote. The ALRB must now decide whether to invalidate the election results entirely, or to reschedule an election. Normally, ALRB elections are certified within five days, but the Board will not rule in this case before August 21.

Whatever the outcome, the UFW’s campaign has been significantly set back. Even if the ALRB invalidates the results, the weakness of the UFW’s campaign at Coastal Berry has been shown. The neutrality agreement, while honored at the top, has not trickled down to the fields where the UFW must organize on a day-to-day basis. And the strawberry season ends in September, leaving the UFW little time to convince the Silliman workers, physically and mentally intimidated by foremen who have escaped any and all discipline, that their future lies with the union.

If the ALRB schedules a new election, it seems likely that more company unions will crop up and anti-union violence will be repeated at other strawberry growers in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys.