Wages, dues, contract workers separate union feelings
For many workers, the wage increases they earned with UFW were wiped out
by union dues
August 24, 2003
By MARY FRICKER THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Three key issues separate farmworkers at Gallo Sonoma and Sonoma-Cutrer
into competing pro-union and anti-union camps: Wages, dues and a company's
right to hire workers through outside labor contractors.
The Gallo contract signed in 2000 called for farmworker wages of $8 to
$12.50 an hour the first year, rising to $8.18 and $12.70 by the third
year. But that wage increase was wiped out by the union dues that workers
had to pay once they signed the contract. Union dues are 2 percent of
At Sonoma-Cutrer, the proposal on the table just before workers voted to
remove the UFW last month called for wages of $9.50 to $14 an hour the
first year and an annual increase of 1 percent for two years. Again, the
increase in wages was not enough to offset the cost of union dues for many
UFW officials said they negotiated the best deals they could, and they
hoped to improve wages in subsequent contracts. They said the contract
guaranteed other important benefits, such as seniority, a grievance system
and job security.
"If you get a contract, you get your foot in the door and in the next
negotiations you can work on improving things," said UFW spokesman Marc
Grossman in Sacramento.
UFW officials said Sonoma-Cutrer tried to dissuade workers from voting for
UFW representation last year by giving them a $1 to $1.50 hourly raise
just before the election. The company denied the allegation.
"We have a record of paying our vineyard workers more than anyone else in
Sonoma County. It was not done to influence the vote," said company
spokesman James Knapp.
Farm labor contractors are a third contentious issue among farmworkers.
Farm labor contractors are useful to growers because they supply teams of
workers as needed. But they can be threatening to other farmworkers who
worry about losing their own jobs to contract workers willing to work for
"Workers know this insecurity is there. They're very fearful, with good
reason. It's a very very deep issue in the California farm labor market,"
said Don Villarejo, a consultant and former executive director of the
California Institution for Rural Studies in Davis.
In general, the United Farm Workers opposes the use of farm labor
contractors by companies, saying the union has received many worker
complaints of poor working conditions. When the UFW is negotiating a
contract and a company insists on using labor contractors, the UFW tries
to get those workers the same pay and benefits it negotiates for the
company's own employees.
Gallo Sonoma directly employs about 80 farmworkers, the company said. It
also hires farm labor contractors, some from the Central Valley, who
supply Gallo with about 200 workers year-around and another 20 during the
A key issue during contract negotiations was how the contract workers
would be covered.
Eventually the UFW agreed to let the company hire labor contractors if all
Gallo Sonoma workers with seniority were first offered work, and in
special circumstances such as when certain skills are required, when
ranches are expanding and when new ranches are acquired.
The company agreed to add at least 25 Gallo Sonoma workers each year for
three years, to ensure it wouldn't gradually replace its own workers with
contract employees, the union said.
Under the Gallo contract, workers employed by farm labor contractors get
union wages and seniority and grievance rights, but they don't get medical
or pension benefits granted to Gallo employees.
Roberto Parra, a pump operator who leads the anti-UFW effort at Gallo,
said many of these contract workers feel their union benefits aren't worth
what they have to pay in dues. When it came time to vote, many opposed the
UFW officials said they fought for years for the contract workers to have
the same benefits as others and the failure to win better terms for them
was the company's fault, not the union's.
"It takes a lot of chutzpah to blame the UFW," Grossman said.
Sonoma-Cutrer does not hire labor contractors. But fear that the company
might bring in labor contractors -- after it was acquired in 1999 by
Kentucky liquor giant Brown-Forman -- was the main reason workers
approached the UFW. The workers feared losing their jobs to contract
Several months ago, some were angered to learn that the UFW negotiating
team was agreeing in bargaining talks to let Sonoma-Cutrer use labor
contractors as long as it didn't reduce its own work force, or in an
emergency or to acquire special skills.
That acceptance was a factor in the decision by a majority of
Sonoma-Cutrer workers last month to decertify the year-old UFW organizing
The union said it made the best deal on contract workers that it could.
"We accepted them in special occasions such as the harvest and rain. We
don't want the company to lose its grapes," said Angel Bautista, a
Sonoma-Cutrer pruner who was on the UFW negotiating team.
You can reach Staff Writer Mary Fricker at 521-5241 or firstname.lastname@example.org
Vine workers divided?
Former UFW supporters want revote, say union has turned back on them
August 24, 2003
By MARY FRICKER THE PRESS DEMOCRAT
Roberto Parra is a pump operator for Gallo Sonoma, and for several years
he was a leader in the effort to have Gallo farmworkers in Sonoma County
represented by the United Farm Workers.
He voted for the union in the 80-21 UFW victory at Gallo in 1994, and he
was part of a UFW leadership team at the company for several years after
But today Parra has turned against the union, claiming that UFW officials
misled farmworkers, promising far more than they delivered.
"They promised a lot of gold promises," Parra said. "But I discovered they
promise things and then give you their back. They forgot the workers."
Parra is the most prominent of at least 150 farmworkers at Gallo Vineyards
and Sonoma-Cutrer Vineyards who have asked the state Agricultural Labor
Relations Board this year to give farmworkers at the two companies a
chance to revote on whether they want to be represented by the UFW.
The results of a March election held at Gallo are still unknown, pending
resolution of UFW charges that Gallo interfered with the vote. But at
Sonoma-Cutrer, workers ousted the UFW by a wide margin in July.
The reversals at the two Sonoma County wineries have revealed a fissure
between some North Coast vineyard workers and the storied farmworker union
famous for its organizing prowess in California agriculture.
Prominent wineries involved
The break with the UFW involves two of Sonoma County's most prominent
wineries, where organizing efforts have been closely followed by the
industry. Gallo Sonoma, a branch of Modesto-based E&J Gallo, the largest
wine company in the world, is the fifth largest winery in Sonoma County
with 125 employees and estimated revenue of $135 million last year.
Sonoma-Cutrer, owned since 1999 by Kentucky liquor giant Brown-Forman,
employs about 190 people in Sonoma County and reported $19 million in 2002
At the heart of the workers' discontent is their claim that the wages
negotiated by the union were barely enough to cover union dues and that
the union was not doing enough to prevent companies from giving union jobs
to farm labor contractors. Farm labor contractors supply growers with
farmworkers as needed, much like temporary agencies.
Some workers also complained that UFW officials too often failed to
explain the union contract to workers and weren't attentive to workers'
Stung by the no-confidence votes, UFW officials defended their record,
saying they were proud of the benefits they negotiated for their members,
including guaranteed seniority, vacations and a way to deal with
They said wages for all Sonoma County farmworkers have improved since the
UFW began organizing in the area. They said they tried to negotiate higher
wages. They said the three employees in the UFW's Santa Rosa office -- who
oversee eight unionized workplaces and 1,100 workers in Sonoma and Napa
counties -- try hard to meet everyone's needs.
UFW fighting back
UFW vice president Efren Barajas vowed to turn the tables back in the
"We have to have the workers organized and make sure they understand what
they have and what they lose without a contract," Barajas said. "Without a
contract, they don't have anything -- not even the security that they're
going to work at that company the next day."
Opinions about the cause of the split with the union are varied.
Santa Rosa UFW officers Sergio Guzman and Salvador Mendoza blame their
setback on the companies, accusing them of unfairly coercing the workers
into voting against the union, allegations company officials deny.
"We've always recognized and respected our vineyard workers' right to
choose whether or not they want to be represented by the union," said
Sonoma-Cutrer spokesman James Knapp.
Gallo officials also said they understood the union's right to organize.
"We are the largest unionized winery in the country. We have a history of
very good experiences negotiating contracts over the years with our
various unions," Gallo officials said in a written statement.
Some labor analysts said the main reason for the UFW reversals is the
explosion of illegal immigration in the past decade, which has created an
oversupply of farm labor in California and made it hard for union workers
to win big gains at the bargaining table.
"So many people are coming in, that's why you can't negotiate higher
wages," said Philip L. Martin, an economics professor at UC Davis who has
a forthcoming book, "Promise Unfulfilled," on unions in agriculture.
Today, about half of the farmworkers in California are illegal immigrants,
according to the U.S. Department of Labor.
Few farmworkers unionized
Even though California created the Agricultural Labor Relations Board in
1975 to protect the rights of farmworkers to choose, or refuse, union
representation -- one of the few states that guarantee such rights to
farmworkers -- fewer than 30,000 of California's 376,000 farm jobs are
covered by union contracts.
Meanwhile, the number of farmworker elections won by unions in California
has dropped from an annual average of 17 in the 1980s to 51/2 in the
1990s, and it's even lower today.
In Sonoma County, farmworkers had been embracing the union. The UFW won
elections at six companies between 1994 and 2002, and by the beginning of
this year it represented 600 of the county's 6,600 farm workers. It also
represents 200 production and maintenance workers at Redwood Empire
Sawmills in Cloverdale.
The union achieved a milestone in 2000 when it signed a contract with
Gallo Sonoma, six years after workers led by Mendoza voted for union
representation. But signs of trouble for the UFW appeared at Gallo earlier
Parra, a 15-year Gallo employee who was ejected from the UFW leadership
committee in 1997 after some bitter disagreements, began collecting worker
signatures in support of a decertification vote.
Under state labor law, he needed about 100 signatures. He says he got 187
-- including 32 from Gallo workers and the rest from men employed by labor
contractors working for Gallo. The union represents both Gallo employees
and contract workers.
Parra's efforts to oust the union at Gallo led to a decertification
election in March. The results of the high-stakes election have been
impounded until the Agricultural Labor Relations Board resolves UFW
charges that two foremen employed by Central Valley labor contractors
illegally pressured their workers at Gallo to vote against the union, a
charge Gallo denies. A hearing was held six weeks ago, and a ruling is
expected soon, officials said.
At Sonoma-Cutrer, the UFW and the company were still negotiating their
first contract when farmworker Alfredo Vasquez of Windsor -- angry about
proposals the UFW was offering in the contract talks -- contacted Parra to
find out how to get the UFW decertified.
He needed about 50 signatures, and last month his efforts culminated in a
77-31 vote against the UFW -- just one year after many of the same workers
approved union representation 62-37. The union has accused the company of
coercing the workers, and the Agricultural Labor Relations Board is
investigating. Sonoma-Cutrer denies it attempted to influence the election
in any way.
Eyes have now turned next door, where the UFW is trying to negotiate its
first contract with Kunde Russian River Valley vineyards. So far, no
anti-union strife has flared.
Labor officials said the UFW reversals are one more example of how U.S.
laws give employers the upper hand to defeat unions.
"The United States has the lowest rate of unionization of the
industrialized West. I feel when it comes to people's constitutional
rights to be in a union, there has been a very, very low level of
protection," said Michael Allen, president of the North Bay Labor Council,
which includes the United Farm Workers.
But Jamie Douglas, executive director of the Sonoma County Wineries
Association, said farmworker rejection of the UFW is further proof that
wineries in Sonoma County treat their workers well.
"Someone has to look at what exactly is the financial benefit to that
worker that the wine industry doesn't already provide," Douglas said.
Labeled a traitor
Parra, 35, is seen by union supporters as a traitor to the union cause.
But Parra thinks farmworkers get better treatment from Gallo Sonoma than
from the UFW.
The UFW promised better wages, a better health plan and job security, but
the actual contract limited raises, increased medical costs to the worker
and did not improve job security, he said. He complains that the UFW says
it supports worker rights but it wants the March decertification vote
He thinks the UFW is mainly interested in collecting its dues, which are 2
percent of wages for all workers who have a UFW-negotiated contract. At
Gallo, that's estimated to be about $130,000 a year, based on the average
farm worker wage of $19,000 in Sonoma County last year and 350 covered