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April 2001, Volume 7, Number 2

UFW: Strawberries, Mushrooms, Corona

There were numerous marches and ceremonies in honor of Cesar Chavez on March 31, the state holiday in Chavez's memory that was celebrated on his birthday for the first time State workers got a paid holiday, and California's 5.9 million public schoolchildren were to spend half the day learning about the life of Chavez and the other half doing community service. The California Department of Education has not finished a curriculum on the life and work of Chavez; when it is completed and adopted by the State Board of Education, it will be made available to the state's 8,500 schools.

Chavez is the only labor leader with a holiday; Governor Gray Davis addressed the largest celebration in Los Angeles.

Strawberries. The UFW announced that it had reached a three-year agreement, effective February 15, 2001, on a first contract with Coastal Berry for 600 to 700 strawberry pickers in the Oxnard area. The agreement provides for a minimum hourly wage of $6.25 in 2001 ($6.25 is California's minimum wage), $6.75 in 2002 (the minimum wage in 2002), and $7.00 in 2003.

Piece-rate wages, which are $1.50 a 12-pint flat, will rise by two +two +three percent, with bonuses of five and 10 cents a flat for all worker crews that average five or six crates an hour.

The UFW-Coastal contract includes health insurance after 60 days of work, but not under the UFW's RFK health insurance plan and does not include coverage under the UFW's MLK pension plan. The contract calls for hiring and recall by seniority, and the union security clause requires Coastal's Oxnard area workers to join the UFW and pay two percent of their earnings to the UFW in dues; some 100 to 150 anti-UFW workers who refused to sign the dues check off form reportedly quit Coastal in protest. Many observers noted that the wage increases just cover union dues. The UFW says it won 20 elections and signed 24 contracts since 1994.

The Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee, which won the right to represent 900 Coastal workers in the Watsonville area, signed a similar contract in October 2000. According to Coastal, the Committee's contract handles layoffs and recalls by merit. Coastal Berry produces about 11 percent of US strawberries, worth about $890 million in 1999.

Acreage of California strawberries fell by 1,200 to 25,100 in 2001, after a record-setting 26,300 acres in 2000- about 11,000 acres are in the Watsonville area, where rents on land to grow strawberries topped $2,000 an acre. The 2000 strawberry harvest for the first time topped 100 million pounds, which depressed prices. About 40 percent of the strawberries are Camarosa, followed by 20 percent Diamante- some 30 percent or 7,300 acres are planted to proprietary varieties such as those developed by Driscoll.

On July 20, 1963, when California had 9,300 acres of strawberries, the California Farmer (p. 5) wrote that "Bracero Loss will make Strawberries a Luxury," predicting sharp drops in production because of higher wages.

Mushrooms. Money's Mushrooms in Pescadero in San Mateo County filed for bankruptcy in November 2000. The UFW staved off the planned closing of the 54-year facility (operated most of those years by Campbells) by offering to reduce wages to keep the facility open.

The United Farm Workers' Juan De La Cruz Farmworkers Pension Plan covers 9,500 workers, with 2,100 receiving monthly benefit checks. The fund, financed by grower contributions of five to 25 cents an hour worked, had $103 million in assets in 2000.

SOAR--Skill Our Agricultural Region--is a $1 million project funded by the Department of Labor to help a UFW-affiliated organization determine the skill levels of farm workers needed for them to move up the farm job ladder. The major conclusion is that English is a prerequisite to upward mobility.

Bert Corona. Bert Corona, a long-time labor organizer who championed the rights of undocumented Latino workers, died at 82 in January 2001. Corona, who founded Hermandad Mexicana in 1951 to advocate on behalf of braceros, clashed with Cesar Chavez and the UFW during the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, when the UFW advocated INS enforcement to remove unauthorized workers from the US. Corona was born in El Paso, and became a labor organizer in Los Angeles in the 1930s.

According to Corona: "I did have an important difference with Cesar. This involved his, and the union's position on the need to apprehend and deport undocumented Mexican immigrants who were being used as scabs by the growers... The Hermandad believed that organizing undocumented farm workers was auxiliary to the union's efforts to organize the fields. We supported an open immigration policy, as far as Mexico was concerned."

Corona's death unleashed a power struggle at Hermandad that pitted his widow against Nativo Lopez, who headed the group's Orange county chapter. Hermandad is fighting with the California Department of Education over $4 million received to provided ESL classes to adult immigrants. The state says Hermandad cannot properly account for the money that it was given. Lopez operates two for-profit organizations in Orange county as well.

Letisia Marquez, "Refusal to pay UFW idles 150 farm workers," Ventura County Star, March 13, 2001. Eric Brazil, "UFW, Strawberry Grower Sign Historic labor contract," San Francisco Chronicle, March 9, 2001. "Union signs contract to represent strawberry pickers," AP, March 9, 2001. Nancy Cleeland, "As It Struggles to Rebuild Itself, UFW Lauds a New Strawberry Pact ," Los Angeles Times, March 8, 2001. Garcia, Mario T. and David Montgomery. 1995. Memories of Chicano History. The Life and Narrative of Bert Corona. Berkeley. University of California Press.