On May 29, 1996, the United Farm Workers of America and Bruce
Church Inc announced that they had ended one of the longest labor
disputes in California agriculture. The contract ended 17 years of
boycotts, litigation and conflict between the UFW and Bruce Church,
Inc. The bitter dispute outlived union leader Cesar Chavez and Ted
Taylor, who headed Bruce Church Inc when the struggle began.
The five-year UFW-BCI agreement raises the wages of 450 lettuce
harvesters employed by the third-largest US lettuce producer--with
annual sales of $50 million-- by four percent, from at least $6.35 to
at least $6.62 per hour. Wages will then rise two percent in each of
the second, third and fourth years of the contract, and three percent
in the fifth year to $7.23 in 2001.
Most workers have higher hourly earnings, because they share a
piece rate wage--average hourly earnings at BCI, now $7.63, are
expected to rise to $8.56 by 2001.
The contract, which includes a no-strike pledge, also provides
company-paid health benefits to workers and their families, creates a
seniority system to deal with seasonal layoffs and recalls, and
establishes a worker-management team to monitor pesticide usage. A $1
per hour housing allowance is provided for some workers when they are
employed away from Salinas. BCI will continue to employ some non-UFW
The agreement was signed in a Salinas library named for Cesar
Settling the dispute required the UFW to weigh the competing
claims of different groups of farm workers. BCI switched from
ground-packing lettuce--putting 24 severed heads directly into a box
to ship to retailers--to machine harvesting--putting heads of lettuce
on a conveyor belt that carries it to workers who wrap each head in a
foil seal before 24 heads are packed into cartons, without offering
to bargain with the UFW over the effects of this change in harvesting
BCI, also without bargaining, used a labor contractor to continue
some ground packing, displacing workers who had elected the UFW to
represent them, and thus owed, according to the UFW, $1 million in
back and make whole wages, which with interest may have doubled to $2
Resolving the BCI dispute required the UFW to argue that the
agreement covering 400 workers was more important than the maximum
backpay for 50 to 100 displaced lettuce cutters, who will now get
The UFW-BCI settlement prompted media speculation about the
comeback of the UFW. Four types of arguments were advanced in the
1980s to explain why the UFW lost members and contracts. First, it
was argued that UFW leadership failures and strategy changes led the
union to quit organizing and to isolate itself from farm workers.
Second, it was charged that Republican governors since 1982 failed to
properly enforce the state's farm labor relations law.
Third, the structure of farm employment changed in a manner that
made organizing and representing farm workers more difficult. Many
farming companies switched from being integrated operations that
hired both year-round and seasonal farm workers directly to a series
of separate entities that hired no seasonal workers. One of these
entities might own the land, which another farms, and a third sells
the commodities produced. The seasonal farm workers employed on the
farm may be employed by custom harvesters or "super" labor
contractors--it is these transitory custom harvesters with whom the
union would have to make an agreement.
Fourth, legal and illegal immigration added to the supply of farm
workers, especially after the SAW program permitted about one-sixth
of the adult men in rural Mexico to become legal US immigrants in the
late 1980s, and encouraged the growth of the false documents
industry. Although unions can sometimes seem to temporarily defy the
laws of supply and demand, and win wage and benefit increases despite
an increased number of workers competing for jobs, employers soon
learn that there are alternatives to unionized workers.
When the UFW called strikes in the early 1980s to support its
demands for wage increases, many employers turned to farm labor
contractors to supply their workers.
The UFW changed in the mid-1990s into an active organizer of farm
workers, and the ALRB has matured, but labor contractors and illegal
immigration persist, making continued UFW organizing successes
A prominent Palo Verde farmer, Dana Fisher, noted in June that low
farm wages made farm workers receptive to union
organizers--"technicians operating our sprayers are making less money
that the grocery store checker," and farm "wages do not adequately
reflect the true value received." However, Fisher went on to assert
that California farmers could not raise wages "at this time."
Cesar Chavez died on April 23, 1993, and there were numerous
anniversaries of his death in 1996. The Cesar E. Chavez Foundation in
Los Angeles, run by Chavez's widow, Helen, awarded the Cesar E.
Chavez Legacy Awards to Congressman Edward R. Roybal and actor Edward
UFW President Arturo Rodriguez announced to a crowd of 2,000 in
Watsonville on April 21, 1996 that the UFW has targeted strawberries
as a commodity in which to organize farm workers. By mid-June, the
UFW had filed almost 40 notices of intent to take access, which
allows union organizers onto farms to talk to workers.
California is expected to have a record 25,200 acres of
strawberries in 1996, producing an average 57,500 pounds or 23.5 tons
per acre. California produced 76 million 12-pint crates of
strawberries in 1994, and 69 million crates in 1995. The US exported
50,000 metric tons of strawberries in 1995--70 percent to Canada. A
California strawberries website can be found on the Internet at
Monterery county's farm sales topped $2 billion in 1995 for the
first time, and included $193 million worth of strawberries.
There are believed to be about 30,000 strawberry workers in
California, including 15,000 in the Salinas area. The UFW, which now
has about 25,000 members, hopes to add strawberry pickers as members
in 1996. The union says that strawberry wages have barely increased
during the past decade, and that most workers do not have medical
insurance, grievance procedures and protection against arbitrary
The UFW also hopes to organize some of the 5,500 farm workers in
Sonoma county. In July 1994, workers at Gallo in Healdsburg voted to
have the UFW represent them, and the ALRB certified the UFW as
bargaining representative for Gallo's Sonoma farm workers.
On April 18, 1996, a Modesto judge set aside the Gallo-Sonoma
election results, ruling, for the first time since 1975, that the
ALRB had not properly determined peak employment. According to the
judge, the ALRB permitted the Gallo election to be held when there
were less than 50 percent of the peak number of workers employed.
The ALRB requires all of the workers on a farm to be in one
wall-to-wall bargaining unit, so that, in most cases, if employment
in the payroll period the year before the union petitions for an
election was 100, the union can petition to hold an election the
following year if employment is at least 50 workers.
Gallo expanded its vineyard operations between 1993 and 1994, and
successfully argued that, when the election was held in July 1994,
employment was 50 percent of the 1993 peak, but only 25 percent of
the 1994 peak. The ALRB is appealing the decision.
The UFW is renegotiating contracts at the wineries C.K. Mondavi
and Charles Krug.
In another case that dates from 1988, the ALRB agreed with the UFW
that Dole Fresh Fruit Company unlawfully refused to honor a contract
between Tenneco West and the UFW when it bought Tenneco's date and
grape operations. Dole refused to bargain with the UFW over the grape
operations, charging that the UFW had abandoned the grape workers,
and the ALRB ruled that Dole had unlawfully refused to bargain over
The UFW has about 40 contracts covering 25,000 members; 40 percent
of the UFW's members are women. About 12,000 union members are
covered by the UFW's MLK pension plan, and less than 10,000 are
covered by the RFK health plan, largely because not all contracts
include these UFW-run programs. UFW members pay two percent of their
gross pay to the union when they are employed on ranches under union
The AFL-CIO announced on May 1, 1996 that some of the 1,000 young
people who speak Spanish and are participating in Union Summer 1996
will work for the UFW to organize strawberry workers in California
and mushroom workers in Florida.
Organized labor is trying to recruit more Hispanic members. The
percentage of union members had dropped to 14.2 percent of the work
force, and organized labor is hoping that bringing in more Hispanic
members will revitalize the labor movement and mobilize the Latino
In the past decade, while the overall work force grew by 16
percent, the Hispanic work force expanded by nearly two-thirds. The
absolute number of Hispanics in unions has been growing fairly
steadily, to an estimated 1.4 million, just over eight percent of all
The Los Angeles County Federation of Labor elected on May 20 its
first Hispanic leader in the union's 102-year history. The Federation
is the second-largest metropolitan labor council in the US. The other
candidate withdrew citing the need for labor unity after support for
the candidates became divided along ethnic lines.
Another Latino, Eliseo Medina, is running virtually unopposed for
the national Service Employees International Union. If elected, he
would be the first top-ranking Latino in the history of the union.
Latino memberships in unions is increasing in public sector jobs and
among janitorial and service workers.
Carey Goldberg, "The Battle of the Strawberry Fields," New York
Times, July 3, 1996. T J Burnham, "Farmers in future must face a
variety of challenges," Ag Alert, June 19, 1996. Eric Brazil, "Farm
workers contract ends long labor dispute," San Francisco Examiner,
June 2, 1996. "Settlement of Farm Workers, Grower Dispute Symbolic,"
All Things Considered, June 2, 1996. Carey Goldberg, "After Years of
Conflict, Lettuce Workers Sign Pact," New York Times, May 30, 1996.
"Farm Workers: UFW, Bruce Church sign Contract 17 years after prior
pact expired," Daily Labor Report, May 30, 1996. Tony Perry, "UFW,
Agribusiness Giant to Sign Contract," Los Angeles Times, May 29,
1996. "Latino Leader," City News Service, May 20, 1996. Stuart
Silverstein, "County Labor Group to Get 1st Latino Leader," Los
Angeles Times, May 17, 1996. George Snyder, "UFW March Focuses On
Sonoma County," San Francisco Chronicle, May 4, 1996. "Conversation
with Labor Ground-Breaker Eliseo Medina," Los Angeles Times, May 4,
1996. Karen Brandon, "Organized labor looking to Hispanics for
recruits," Austin American-Statesman, April 28, 1996. Gordon Smith,
"United Farm Workers, on the rise again, plan to organize strawberry
field workers," San Diego Union-Tribune, April 23, 1996.