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January 2001, Volume 7, Number 1

UFW: Strawberries, Mushrooms

The UFW filed its LM-2 report for 1999, reporting $7 million in revenues, including $1.7 million or 24 percent from the dues of 26,000 members, $4 million in contributions, and the balance from income from affiliates and interest.


The UFW won its first NLRB-supervised election in November 2000, winning 191-99 at Guy Chaddock, an upscale furniture manufacturer in Bakersfield. Labor attorneys are divided about the implications for secondary boycotts- under the ALRA, a farm worker union can urge consumers to boycott, for instance, Safeway because it sells Gallo wine, while the NLRA does not permit such secondary boycotting of a neutral retailer.


Strawberries. The Coastal Berry of California Farm Worker Committee signed an agreement on a first contract with Coastal Berry of California in October 2000 to cover northern California strawberry workers, with the new agreement offering modest wage increases. Workers now must sign state-required authorization forms to allow the committee to deduct one percent of their wages for dues. Under the contract, workers who refuse to sign will lose their jobs.


In 1996, when the UFW claimed 26,000 members, the union announced plans to almost double its membership by organizing California's 20,000 strawberry pickers. At a rally in April 1997, AFL-CIO president John Sweeny said that the UFW's strawberry campaign was the most important union organizing drive in the US.


The UFW targeted the largest employer of strawberry pickers in the US, Garguilo, now Coastal Berry. There were three ALRB-supervised elections at Coastal Berry- one in 1998 and two in 1999- and they resulted in the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee being certified to represent 800 Coastal Berry workers in the Salinas area and the UFW was certified to represent about 700 Coastal Berry workers in the Oxnard area. The UFW was certified in 1998 to represent 40 workers at Swanton Berry Farms, the state's largest organic strawberry grower.


Most strawberries are picked into flats or trays that contain 12 dry-pint containers that each weigh 12 ounces, or a total of 144 ounces or nine pounds of strawberries; full trays weigh 10.5 to 11 pounds, including the weight of the tray.


Harvesters in 1996-97 were reportedly paid $4.50 to $4.70 an hour in the Watsonville-Salinas area, plus $0.65 to $0.75 a tray. By picking six to nine trays an hour, workers earn $8.60 to $11.35 an hour for 800 to 1,200 hours for the season, which runs from April through October in the Watsonville-Salinas area (this is equivalent to 100 to 150 eight-hour days or, with a six-day work week, 17 to 25 weeks of work). In addition, many growers provide, after 500 to 750 hours of employment, health insurance, four to five paid holidays, including July 4, and premium pay for night work.


A US DOL prevailing wage survey in April 1998 in Ventura county concluded that the prevailing wage for strawberry picking at $1.45 per 12-pint tray, down from $1.65 a tray in 1997. Some workers were paid $4.50 a box plus $0.50 a tray.


A Nova Scotia strawberry grower in July 2000 said that the only way he could get local workers to pick his 25 acres of strawberries was by paying them in cash. He blamed generous welfare benefits for the refusal of 80 local workers to pick strawberries as employees; by getting their pay in cash, they can continue to draw welfare benefits.


Mushrooms. Since 1987, the UFW has been trying to negotiate a new contract for 300 workers employed by Pictsweet Mushroom Farms in Ventura county. In January 2000, the UFW stepped up its efforts to negotiate a new contract, asking for a piece-rate wage increase of five cents a basket for picking mushrooms- the UFW says that the piece rate has increased by three cents a basket since 1987- as well as improved health insurance benefits.


In summer 2000, the UFW launched a boycott of Pictsweet mushrooms, and Pictsweet laid off workers after supermarket chains Von's and Ralphs stopped buying Pictsweet mushrooms. The UFW charged that Pictsweet was supporting an effort to decertify the UFW by allowing the solicitation of worker signatures on the decertification petition during working hours.


The ALRB's General Counsel filed a complaint against Pictsweet in October 2000; it will be considered by an Administrative Law Judge unless a settlement is reached.


Grapes. On November 21, 2000, the UFW officially ended the Wrath-Of-Grapes boycott, which began July 12, 1984. The UFW said that the goals of the boycott were largely accomplished because three of the five chemicals it was protesting have been banned. In 1983/84, when the UFW launched its high-tech boycott of table grapes, consumption averaged 5.6 pounds per person; in 1999/00, per capita consumption averaged 8.2 pounds per person. For more information: http://usda.mannlib.cornell.edu/reports/erssor/specialty/fts-bb/2000/fts290.pdf


The UFW in 1984 charged that five pesticides used on California table grapes-- Dinoseb, Captan, methyl bromide, Parathion and Phosdrin-- caused illnesses among farm workers and their families, and left pesticide residues on grapes that posed threats to consumers; the UFW urged consumers not to buy California table grapes. The high-tech boycott relied on millions of letters printed in the UFW print shop and mailed to consumers in zip codes believed to include UFW sympathizers. Chavez thought that, with narrow grocery store margins, only five to 10 percent of shoppers would have to switch stores before stores would drop grapes or stop promoting them.


There were periodic fast-for-life protests to call attention to the boycott in the late 1980s, including a 36-day fast in 1988, and UFW demonstrations to get grocery stores to stop selling grapes. In a 1989 speech, Chavez said that "supermarkets that promote, sell and profit from California table grapes.. are as culpable as those who manufacture the poisons and those who use them."


Between 1989 and 1991, the UFW picketed the nine Tianguis stores to persuade them to stop selling and promoting grapes. Von's was the largest grocery chain in southern California, and Tianguis were Von's stores in Hispanic neighborhoods. The ALRB declared the UFW boycott of Tianguis stores unlawful, and invited those damaged to sue the UFW. Von's did not sue, but the California Table Grape Commission did; a court of appeals overturned the right of the CTGC to file unfair labor practice charges against the UFW.


The first UFW grape boycott was launched in January 1968, and ended with most major table grape growers signing contracts with the UFW in mid-1970 that raised entry-level wages 40 percent, from $1.25 to $1.75 an hour (most growers also paid a piece rate of $0.25 a box). Annual per capita grape consumption fell from 3.2 pounds per person in 1966 to two pounds per person in 1971 and 1972. The first table grape boycott was considered one of the most successful consumer boycotts in US union history; a 1975 Harris poll found that 17 million Americans, almost 10 percent of the population, avoided grapes in the late 1960s and early 1970s.


There was a second grape boycott in 1973, called to protest the decision of many grape growers to switch to the Teamsters when their UFW contracts came up for renewal. It ended with the enactment of the ALRA in 1975.


Huerta. Dolores Huerta, co-founder of the United Farm Workers of America, was hospitalized several times in Fall 2000. Also in November 2000, a federal suit was filed on behalf of muralist Susan Cervantes and Huerta accusing the Corbis Corp., owned by Microsoft's Bill Gates and claiming to have 65 million images, of misappropriating the UFW's slogan " Si Se Puede" (It can be done), the union' s trademark black eagle logo and images of Huerta by offering them for sale on its web site. For more information: http://www.corbis.com