Thursday, November 12, 1998
This week the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board ruled invalid the election of the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee as the union of choice for workers at Watsonville''s Coastal Berry Co. The committee and the United Farmworkers of America have been battling over the right to represent workers at Coastal Berry, and Coastal Berry itself is seen by both groups as ground zero in a struggle to represent local strawberry workers.
Pivotal to that struggle are accusations and counter-accusations hurled by both sides. UFW workers have argued that the committee is simply the latest attempt by the strawberry industry to undercut the UFW through support of grower front groups posing as worker organizations. Some workers have in turn argued that they legitimately don''t support the UFW as their union of choice.
Industry representatives, such as Driscoll Strawberry Associates Vice President Phil Adrian, say the UFW is purporting to represent workers who simply don''t want a union and spreading lies about working conditions that are hurting business. Adrian insists that he is not anti-union. Last June, the company even paid for two Catholic priests and a nun to be flown out from St. Louis to personally examine labor conditions. (Unfortunately for Driscoll, the attempt backfired when religious leaders later released a statement criticizing Driscoll for its wages, working conditions and intimidation of union supporters.)
Every industry representative interviewed for this story denied allegations that anti-union worker groups have been funded by the industry. "Outrageous, outrageous," says Western Growers Association spokesperson Heather Flowers.
Still, this week''s ALRB decision to reverse the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee victory, comes amidst a backdrop of burgeoning evidence suggesting that there is indeed validity to the UFW''s allegations about industry efforts to derail the unionization of berry workers.
For the UFW, plenty is at stake. In the past three years, the UFW has called on other unions, supermarkets and social justice groups across the country to support its campaign to organize California''s more than 27,000 strawberry workers, concentrating on the fertile fields of Watsonville and Salinas. California''s $585 million strawberry industry has fought back. The only union victory not followed by a farm closure was at Swanton Berry Farms in Santa Cruz--and even that election was twice protested by the Ventura County Growers Association.
The conflict then erupted in violence this summer at Coastal Berry Company in Watsonville, when, on July 1, pro- and anti-UFW workers physically clashed, with videotapes showing UFW-sympathizers beaten by opponents. The man the Santa Cruz County Sheriff''s Department named as instigator of the incident, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, was arrested by deputies. Two weeks later, he reappeared as president of a new workers'' organization, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee that, following a July 23 worker election, emerged as the apparent victor in the battle to represent Coastal Berry workers. It is that victory that now has been overturned by the ALRB.
But meanwhile, a case is pending that could change the picture of organizing the strawberry fields even more. A year ago, on Oct. 14 1997, in Santa Cruz County Superior Court, the UFW filed a suit charging strawberry growers, shippers and industry representatives with giving money to support anti-union organizations. In UFW v. Dutra Farms, the union aims to prove that industry and its grower front groups conspired in a "fraudulent and unfair scheme of misleading the public" by representing the organizations as worker-advocacy groups funded by public donations when they were receiving money from growers.
Fernandez, president of the new labor organization at Coastal Berry, was also a member of the group now being sued by the UFW.
UFW v. Dutra Farms is set to go to trial in spring of ''99. But in preparing evidence for the case, UFW lawyers have also uncovered evidence in the form of bank records and canceled checks directly linking growers to previous "worker" organizations, Ag Workers of America (AgWA), Pro Workers Committee, and Ag Workers Committee (AWC)--a group that has changed its name several times but retained the same core board members. According to UFW lawyer Mary Lynn Werlwas, the union has discovered $67,000 in checks from growers and agribusiness, not including individual and cash contributions, going to such organizations.
The AWC itself has muddled origins. Its debut event on Aug. 10 1997, was dubbed the "March for Truth" by event organizers. About 800 people marched through the streets of Watsonville, holding signs denouncing UFW leaders Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta as >"hijos del diablo" (children of the devil) and calling for the UFW to get out of the fields. Many of the marchers who participated in the march were from the Ramos, Dutra and Clint Miller farms. All three are defendants in UFW v. Dutra Farms.
AWC members insisted at the time that they were not paid to participate, but later, in a deposition for the Dutra case, board members Jose Oscar Ortega and Martin Garcia testified that they were paid $10 an hour to make signs for the march--the same as they were paid to attend AWC meetings. They also said non-board members were paid $7 an hour to help prepare for the march.
According to Marc Grossman, a spokesperson for the UFW, dozens of strawberry workers complained that they had been forced by their employers to attend a similar march in 1996 hosted by the Pro Workers Committee. But at the 1997 AWC march itself, AWC spokesperson Antonio Perez said that allegations of grower-funding are an insult to farm workers, adding that the UFW thinks workers cannot think for themselves.
Union advocates had previously contended that by allowing the election at Coastal Berry to proceed, growers have gotten a green light to fight union organizing by setting up company-funded front groups. In Dutra, the UFW hopes to demonstrate that the industry has a history of forming such fraudulent labor organizations.
The lawsuit''s original list of defendants included the predecessors of the AWC: Ag Workers of America and the Pro Workers Committee; AWC director Antonio Perez; grower Miguel Ramos; and Virgilio Yepez, a supervisor at Dutra. After receiving the Ag Workers of America bank records, UFW lawyers have expanded the list of defendants to include 10 industry representatives.
The evidence collected by the UFW specifically includes checks written to AWC, AgWA and the Pro Workers Committee by the powerful Irvine-based Western Growers Association, Premier Growers Association of Watsonville, Well-Pict Inc., Clint Miller Farms, New West Fruit Corporation, Del Llano, Watsonville Berry Cooler and Saticoy Berry Farms.
Western Growers Association is one of the largest agricultural trade associations in the country. Its members grow, ship and pack most of the fruits and vegetables in California and Arizona. Western Growers Association attorney Doug Kerr says a $1,300 check written by the association to Ag Workers of America wasn''t a donation but a payment for translation services used in co-producing a video with the group about worker rights. He agreed to provide this reporter with a copy of the video, but this reporter never received it.
UFW lawyers have also discovered through bank records that Dutra Farms paid several bills for AgWA. The Watsonville farm paid for a cell phone used by AgWA President Guadalupe Sanchez (the number is the same number listed on AgWA''s business card). Dutra Farms also apparently paid for items used in a 1996 march, including over $1,000 for Port-A-Potty rentals. Meanwhile, Clint Miller Farms, a contract grower and board member for Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., gave numerous checks to the group (marked as "donations"), paid a local labor consultant and funded the making of over 300 copies of AgWA videos. (Neither Jim Dutra and his lawyers nor Clint Miller Farms returned calls for this story.)
More recently released bank records also indicate that the L.A.-based Dolphin Group--which houses in its offices the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance (SWFA), an anti-UFW group--paid over $2,500 for AgWA T-shirts.
Strawberry industry publications also show that growers were openly encouraged to contribute to anti-UFW worker groups. In a September 1997 article in Vegetables West: Grower and PCA, titled "Ag Workers Committee: New Group Hopes to Dilute the UFW," editor Peter Cavanaugh assures growers of their privacy. "All individuals and agricultural companies are urged to help the Ag Workers Committee in their fight for reason. Please send checks to Ag Workers Committee, Inc.," Cavanaugh wrote. "Since the Committee is incorporated, the names of the donors are kept secret."
A cover story for Vegetables West the following month, devoted to the upcoming Vegetables West Expo in Monterey, was titled "Among the Rows: Are You Sick of the UFW?" The piece, also written by Cavanaugh, makes it clear that the Oct. 1 industry expo in Monterey was a nonprofit event to fund the AWC. "The Agricultural Workers Committee is a friend of the industry," wrote Cavanaugh. "Net proceeds from the expo will go to the AWC." According to UFW lawyer Werlwas, checks indicate that Premier Growers Association and New West have each contributed $10,000 to the AWC and its predecessors.
Meanwhile, in a deposition taken for Dutra, labor consultants Joe Sanchez testified his firm takes him to farms to talk to employees about their rights--mainly their right not to join the UFW. Sanchez also testified that he typically bills the Monterey Growers Association for work at MGA-affiliated farms, that Well-Pict in 1996 had him on a $4,000-a-month retainer, and that he bills Driscoll directly for his services.
Attorneys for the defendants in the UFW v. Dutra Farms case have attempted several times to have the lawsuit thrown out. In December, Terry O''Connor of Western Legal Associates filed charges against the UFW, alleging the case is a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). The court rejected the claim and fined grower attorneys $8,000, payable to UFW lawyers, for filing a frivolous complaint. Soon after another motion to stay the case was rejected, the AWC declared bankruptcy. Despite protest from the defendants who claim the lawsuit should be dropped because the group is bankrupt, the case is proceeding against individual defendants. (Ironically, a month after declaring bankruptcy, AWC members went to Sacremento to lobby for stricter union organizing limitations in the strawberry fields.)
The Dutra case--and this week''s ruling against Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee--represent more than just a dispute over who will represent strawberry workers. If growers are funding and supporting anti-UFW efforts, the ramifications are serious.
State labor law doesn''t view an employer as just another member of the public when it comes to funding a labor organization meant to represent its employees. The 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was modeled after the National Labor Relations Act, specifies that an employer cannot "dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization, or contribute financial support to it."
The ALRA says that an employer and its managers cannot "encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization."
"We''ve had hundreds of cases where a supervisor might offer to give employees a ride home, and mention they might get a raise if the union loses, or where an employer directly threatens to close down if the union wins," ALRB General Counsel Norma Turner says. "Either way, it''s an employer interfering with free choice." cw