Thursday, June 10, 1999
Almost 1,400 men and women engaged in the back-breaking labor of picking strawberries headed to the polls last week to choose an employees'' group that would lobby for their rights.
The ballot pitted the venerable United Farm Workers of America (UFW), created 37 years ago by Cesar Chavez, against a new employees'' group, Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee
The UFW didn''t win, or it appears that way at least.
Of the 1,378 ballots cast on June 10 and 11, 598 were for the UFW; 688 went to the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee, an in-house bargaining committee critics say was hastily formed as a "sham union" intended to draw votes away from the UFW. Ninety-two ballots were contested and are under review by the Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB).
Since a union needs a simple majority to win, the results won''t be final until the ALRB finishes its investigation, which is expected to happen sometime next week.
"It''s not a defeat yet, but we''re certainly disappointed with the outcome,'''' UFW spokesman Marc Grossman says.
But it wasn''t just the outcome of this election that should disappoint UFW officials. Last week''s was the third straight secret-ballot election during which the UFW didn''t get as many votes as the Coastal Berry committee, or Comit as the employees call it.
The loss is a big one for the UFW, which was looking toward a contract with Coastal Berry--the nation''s largest strawberry grower--as a way to enter into California''s $783 million strawberry industry.
"The big advantage of workers joining the UFW over the in-house, single company union is that the latter cuts people off from solidarity and collaboration with other unions,'''' says Ann Newell, business agent for the Santa Cruz and Monterey counties Central Labor Council. "The UFW would organize not just one group of workers, but all the strawberry workers so you could align wages, health benefits and other things."
At its peak in 1970, the UFW contained 80,000 members, but those numbers dropped to 20,000 by the time Chavez died in 1973. Today, membership hovers around 27,000, Grossman says, and includes nearly 70 percent of the workers in Monterey County''s mushroom industry.
Those familiar with the agricultural and labor industry say many factors went into the UFW''s loss, among them intimidation, fear, and familial ties.
"The reality is that in the strawberry field there is still widespread, massive fear of retaliation," says Mike Meuter, directing attorney for California Rural Legal Assistance, which works with migrant workers and others, "and the fear of the power of the companies and the industry definitely makes organizing especially difficult."
Grossman says the UFW wasn''t fighting just the Comit in this election, it was fighting the entire strawberry industry and its long, anti-UFW history.
Grossman and others contend the Comit was supported by industry representatives and fronted by company supervisors and managers who encouraged employees to vote with them.
Comit representatives could not be reached for comment, but union vice president Sergio Leal dismissed Grossman''s concerns in interviews with other newspapers.
"We represent the workers," he told the San Francisco Examiner. "They [the UFW] represent the organizers."
And Coastal Berry President Ernie Farley said that while the company remained neutral during the election, the company''s owner, David Gladstone, encouraged employees to join the UFW--a stance that made the berry grower unpopular in the industry.
Sergio Sanchez, a field representative for the Service Employees International Union local 817 in Salinas, says cultural factors played a part in the UFW''s loss.
For one thing, Sanchez says, many of the workers are from Mexico, where unions are run by the government, so workers may not understand what the UFW is all about.
Plus, Sanchez says, many of the workers have received their jobs through the blessings of family members who are now their supervisors.
"With the promise of a job, you''re pretty much at the mercy of these people," Sanchez says, "either by feeling the need to pay back the favor of bringing you into this country or because they are related."
Still, Grossman says the UFW isn''t giving up the fight at Coastal Berry. The union is already planning to file election objections with the ALRB, and those objections could take as long as a year to resolve.
"We will make no change in the UFW commitment to help strawberry workers organize to improve their lives," he says.