July 1999, Volume 5, Number 3
UFW Loses at Coastal
The UFW lost three elections at Coastal Berry, the largest strawberry
grower in the US, with a peak 1,500 farm workers. In the decisive election
held June 3-4, 1999, the Coastal Berry Farm Worker Committee won 688 to 598,
with 92 of the 1,378 ballots challenged. The Committee needs to win on three
of the challenged ballots to achieve a majority vote. The UFW filed 234
objections to the election.
The Committee said that it won because strawberry workers did not want to
pay two percent of their average $8 hourly and $8,500 annual earnings to the
UFW for dues (most growers pay $4.50 to $5.15 an hour plus $0.70-$0.75 for each
12-pint box of berries picked). However, there seemed to be a clear difference
between workers in Oxnard and Watsonville. In the May 1999 election, for
example, 576 votes were cast in the Oxnard area: the UFW got 309 votes; the
Committee got 230 votes; and there were 37 no votes. In Watsonville, by
contrast, the UFW lost to the Committee by a vote of 268-416. In the June 1999
election, the UFW won in Oxnard 311-266, with 30 challenged ballots.
The Coastal Berry Farm Worker Committee won its first election in July 1998
by a vote of 523 to 410. That election was overturned in May 1999 by the ALRB
on a 4-1 vote, with three newly appointed ALRB members agreeing with an
Administrative Law Judge decision that the failure to notify 162 of Coastal's
Oxnard-based workers required a new election--the Committee won by 113 votes,
and thus the uninformed voters could have affected the outcome. The UFW and
other unions were prohibited from taking access to Coastal workers between July
1998 and May 1999.
The first 1999 election was held May 25-26, 1999; the Committee received
646 votes to 577 for the UFW, with 79 votes for no union and 52 challenged
ballots. In order to be a certified bargaining representative for farm
workers, a union must win a majority vote. Before all of the challenged
ballots were resolved, the Committee and the UFW agreed on a run-off
Coastal Berry was "neutral" in the organizing campaign. However, one of
the company's leaders sent a letter to workers in 1998 saying that they would
be better off with a union.
Analysis. The loss was a severe defeat for the UFW. Arturo
Rodriguez said that the UFW would not give up: "We've been around for well
over three decades now and we've proven that we're here to stay. We're not
going to abandon the strawberry campaign."
The UFW launched its strawberry organizing campaign in 1994, and sponsored
marches in 1997 that prompted AFL-CIO President John Sweeney to call the UFW's
strawberry campaign the largest union-organizing drive in the US. The UFW
targeted Watsonville-based Coastal Berry Co., the largest US employer of
strawberry pickers. Coastal hires a peak 1,500 workers to harvest 850 acres of
strawberries in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties and 330 acres in Ventura
county. Coastal Berry president Ernie Farley said that the company in 1999 is
paying a minimum $7.50 and an average $8.40 an hour, plus medical and dental
benefits for workers and their families as well as life insurance.
In response to the UFW campaign, several grower-worker committees were
established to oppose the UFW including, the UFW charged, the Coastal Berry
Farm Worker Committee. The UFW sued several worker committees and the growers
who supported them in 1997, charging that they were fronts for growers trying
to avoid unions--the UFW discovered $56,000 worth of canceled checks that
linked some worker committees to growers. In May 1999, the UFW suit was
settled, with 20 growers and industry groups promising to stop funding such
Many commentators noted that the work force has changed since the UFW was
active in the fields in the late 1970s. In 1970, about half of all California
farmworkers were born in US. In the mid-1990s, over 90 percent of California's
hired farm workers were born abroad, and over 40 percent were unauthorized.
The median age of farm workers has been about 28 for the past three
decades, with about 10 percent exiting the farm work force each year. Since
the overall number of farm workers is stable at an average monthly employment
of 350,000 to 400,000, and with about 800,000 persons doing farm work for wages
some time during the year, this means that every year about 80,000 workers exit
the labor force, to be replaced by 80,000 newly arrived workers from
One observer said: "when you mention Cesar Chavez [to young farm workers],
they think you're talking about Julio Cesar Chavez, the boxer." It is clear
that many farm workers are more loyal to a particular foreman or contractor
then to an employer or union: the crew leaders who often recruit and usually
supervise crews of 30 to 50 farm workers are often Mexican-born, sometimes from
the same village or region in Mexico as the harvest workers.
The UFW said that especially Coastal supervisors fought hard against the
UFW. The UFW noted that a "tombstone leaflet" that included the logos of
growers who have gone out of business after interactions with the UFW made many
workers fearful of voting for the UFW. Workers at VCNM Farms voted 332-50 on
August 17, 1995 to have the UFW represent them. VCNM responded by disking
under the remaining strawberries in September 1995. In October 1995, the ALRB
ruled that VCNM deliberately destroyed the remaining berries in retaliation for
the pro-UFW vote, and ordered VCNM to provide $113,000 to workers made
Some commentators said that the UFW made too many mistakes, including using
outside professional organizers instead of local worker-organizers. There were
reports that the UFW had spent $90,000 a month since 1996 on its strawberry
organizing campaign, or $2 million over the past three years. The UFW has one
strawberry contract among its 33 to 35 active contracts, with an organic grower
who has 15-25 workers.
The UFW loss at Coastal is a sharp contrast to other union victories among
immigrant workers. "Some of the most significant victories labor has seen in
the past 10 years have been among immigrant workers," said Kate Bronfenbrenner,
director of labor education research at Cornell University, citing the 1999
victory of the Service Employees International Union to represent the 75,000
home-care workers in the Los Angeles area, many of whom are immigrants.
The UFW filed an unfair labor practice charge in July 1999 on behalf of 96
strawberry workers who lost their jobs at Green Valley Farms in the Santa Maria
Valley after protesting for a wage increase May 27, 1999. Most of the workers
are Mixtec Indians from the state of Oaxaca. They demanded $2 to pick each
20-pound tray of berries destined for canning and freezing, and were offered
$1.90 a tray, with a $0.10 end of season bonus. The workers rejected this
offer, and sheriff's deputies were called in to tell striking workers to work
There were several strikes over wages in the Santa Maria Valley in 1999.
About 45 Boavista Harvest strawberry workers said that they too were fired for
striking to reinforce their demand for a $2.50 a tray piece rate for processing
berries; when they returned to work after their protest, they were told that
they had been replaced.
UFW History. UFW membership peaked in 1973, when the UFW said that
67,000 workers were employed sometime during the year on the 180 California
farms with contracts. The UFW had over 500 organizers in 1975-76, just after
the ALRA was signed, and won most of the over 400 elections held in the last
five months of 1975. In 1980, the UFW reported that 50,000 workers were
employed sometime during a typical year on the 150 farms with UFW
In the early 1980s, the number of UFW organizers fell to a handful, the UFW
moved its headquarters from Delano to a mountain-top location called La Paz,
and Cesar Chavez fired many of those who had helped to establish the UFW. The
ALRA was enacted in 1975 under a Democratic governor, and in 1983, a Republican
took office, changing the composition of the ALRB. The UFW said that it was
impossible to organize farm workers under a Republican-dominated ALRB, so it
launched a high-tech, wrath-of-grapes boycott that used direct mail to urge
shoppers not to patronize stores that sold grapes. It failed; grape
consumption rose from six pounds a person in the mid-1980s to seven pounds in
the early 1990s. The UFW had no table grape contracts when Cesar Chavez died
on March 31, 1993.
(However, Von's, a southern California grocery chain, said that the UFW's
1984-94 grape boycott, plus rapid integration of Hispanic immigrants, led to
the demise of its nine Tianguis stores, which were created to appeal to
Hispanic immigrants. Von's CEO said that "The UFW's efforts were eminently
successful, and volume reverted to free-fall." Most Tianguis stores were
converted into regular Vons.)
On March 31, 1994, the UFW ended its ten-year-old, high-tech grape boycott.
One year after Chavez's death, the UFW marched 330 miles from Delano to
Sacramento, and announced that it would once again organize farm workers and
negotiate contracts with growers. Since 1994, the UFW won 15 elections with
3500 votes cast.
Most articles on the demise of the UFW focused on the changes in UFW
leadership and the switch from Democratic to Republican governors. Thus, when
Chavez' son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez, assumed leadership of the UFW, and a
Democrat was elected governor in 1998, many assumed that the UFW would once
again become a major force in the California farm labor market. However,
continued illegal immigration and the switch of many farmers to hiring workers
via labor contractors has made it harder for any union to organize farm workers
and negotiate durable contracts with growers.
The UFW reported $1.5 million in dues income on its 1997 LM-2 report filed
with the US DOL; UFW leaders say the union has about 26,000 members. The UFW
charges members two percent of earnings as dues, which would imply an average
of $3,000 earnings for 26,000 members.
Many UFW members are year-round employees of nurseries and mushroom
operations, earning $15,000 to $20,000 a year; the 26,000 total seems to
include 5,000 to 10,000 associate members who do not work under UFW contract
but who do pay about $20 a year for UFW services, and other workers who were
under UFW contract, but are currently employed on farms on which the UFW is
re-negotiating contracts or contesting decertification votes. By some
estimates, the UFW has fewer than 15,000 dues paying farm workers under
contract, which would make it the smallest union represented on the AFL-CIO's
Other UFW. Bear Creek Production Co., a Wasco, California rose
grower with a UFW contract covering 1,300-1,400 workers that was renegotiated
in Fall 1997, opened a new $5 million rose-packing plant in Kern county. Bear
Creek owns Jackson and Perkins, which is developing a Cesar Chavez rose. Bear
Creek is reportedly the largest single UFW contract.
On June 18, 1999, the UFW was decertified at San Clemente Ranch on a 135-69
vote; the UFW filed numerous election objections. In July 1977, the UFW won an
election at Highland Ranch, which was sold to Oxnard-based Deardorf-Jackson and
renamed in November 1977, before a contract was negotiated. There was only one
employee at the time of the sale, but the ALRB held that, since San Clemente
produced the same crops with the same equipment as Highland, San Clemente
assumed Highland's duty to bargain (Highland Ranch and San Clemente Ranch 5
ALRB 54 (1979). A contract between the UFW and San Clemente was apparently
A campaign is underway to put Cesar Chavez on a US postage stamp; the
Postal Service requires that a person be dead 10 years before it will consider
a commemorative stamp. Chavez died at age 66 in 1993, so a stamp could not be
issued before 2003.
The UFW's Juan de la Cruz Farm Workers Pension Fund has $100 million in
assets, up from $50 million in 1990, and the UFW in May 1999 gave 2,000 retired
farm workers $1,000 bonus checks and surviving spouses $500, because of the
surge in assets. The UFW pension plan is named for a 60-year-old worker who
was shot to death during a 1973 Kern County grape strike. The UFW pension fund
is paying an average $160 a month to 1,900 retired farm workers.
Other Unions. Many US unions are attempting to organize immigrant
workers: in February, 1999, the Service Employees International Union won the
right to represent 74,000 home-health-care workers in Los Angeles, half of them
immigrants. The US health care industry, with 12 million employees, is
expected to be a focus of union organizing efforts in the next decade.
During the 1940s, the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, under
the leadership of Harry Bridges, attempted to march inland, using its power on
the docks to organize truckers, packing and warehouse workers, and in Hawaii,
farm workers (the ILWU was formed after West Coast longshoremen broke away from
the New York-based International Longshoremen's Association in 1937). ILWU
membership has fallen from 50,000 in 1960 to 40,000 in 1999, including fewer
than 10,000 longshore jobs that pay an average $99,000 a year. Secretaries in
firms on the docks average $28 an hour.
To maintain its membership, the ILWU in 1997 committed one-third of its $3
million annual budget to organizing, and began a second march inland. ILWU
organizing director Peter Olney says that the ILWU wants to add at least 4,000
new members by 2002.
The United Auto Workers, with 396,000 auto members, opened contract talks
June 14-16, 1999 with the Big Three automakers--General Motors Corp, Ford Motor
Co., and Daimler Chrysler. The UAW will bargain with all three auto makers
over the summer and choose one company to fashion a master contract in the fall
that would serve as a guide for the other two automakers.
Eric Brazil, "At anti-union tomato farm, workers dump UFW," San Francisco
Examiner, July 10, 1999. Melinda Burns, "Pickers file unfair labor charge,"
Santa Barbara News Press, July 8, 1999. Maria Alicia Gaura, "Why Strawberry
Fields Have Been Barren for UFW," San Francisco Chronicle, June 7, 1999. Eric
Brazil, "UFW labors to find growth," San Francisco Examiner, June 6, 1999.
Fred Alvarez, "UFW, Rival Committee Jockey for Strawberry Pickers' Votes," Los
Angeles Times, June 3, 1999. Vicki Adame and Oliver Garcia, "UFW marches ahead
on sixth anniversary of Chavez's death," Bakersfield Californian, April 22,
1999. Elliot Zwiebach, "Vons cites UFW in Tianguis demise; United Farm Workers
blamed for failure of Tianguis concept," Supermarket News, April 25,