The Common Good
September-October 1998

Resisting a Bitter Harvest

by Rose Marie Berger | September-October 1998

Despite anti-union violence, the United Farm Workers persevere in organizing strawberry pickers.

With shouts of "Si se puede! (Yes, it can be done!)," strawberry pickers, labor activists, church members, and even some berry growers are joining the United Farm Workers (UFW) campaign to unleash justice on strawberry fields across the United States (see "Between the Lines," Sojourners, May-June 1997). Unfortunately, anti-union forces are violently fighting back.

On July 2, 1998, following a failed attempt by anti-union workers to shut down the Coastal Berry cooler (one of the largest growers in Santa Cruz County, California), a foreman at Coastal Berry Co. was arrested after he and an estimated 150 others attacked 75 strawberry pickers and several sheriff's deputies with lead pipes and scraps of wood. Three farm workers were hospitalized after being shoved to the ground and severely beaten. Pro-union Coastal Berry workers are calling for the dismissal of the Coastal employees arrested for inciting violence and for a national mobilization to hold Coastal Berry president David Gladstone accountable to the earlier neutrality agreement he signed with the UFW.

Coastal Berry is a subcontractor of Driscoll Strawberry Associates, suppliers of 25 percent of U.S. strawberries. Driscoll has hired professional union-busters, fired pro-union pickers, plowed under crops, and shut down plants rather than bargain for union contracts. The UFW recently won a class action suit against Driscoll that resulted in $575,000 in back wages for workers who were forced to work "off the clock" without pay. The UFW has also filed legal actions against 10 Driscoll growers for failing to notify workers when they were exposed to cancer-causing agents.

Driscoll did agree to conduct an internal audit of its farm safety and sanitation conditions. Some results were shocking. One Driscoll contract farm had "55 people working in the sun with extremely inadequate drinking water" and a women's toilet with feces on the toilet lid and an uncapped water tank with no water. Driscoll president Ken Morena immediately threatened to stop doing business with "any ranches that did not pass the audit 100 percent." However, Driscoll has not yet dropped any farm contracts.

CALIFORNIA'S 20,000 strawberry workers make about $8,000 a year with no health insurance or job security. Until recently, their wages were going steadily down. Meanwhile, California's strawberry industry grosses more than $650 million each year and provides 80 percent of U.S. strawberries; business is booming. According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, a 5-cent increase in the price of strawberries to the consumer could increase pickers' wages by 50 percent, giving workers a living wage. The U.S. Catholic Bishops Conference, drawing on Catholic social teaching, endorsed statements made by Bishop Ryan of Monterey, California, calling for all partiesù"pickers, coolers, growers, and union organizersùto come together in any and every way to reconcile the financial success of the industry with the working conditions in the fields."

The religious community has also been active in support of farm workers through the National Strawberry Commission for Workers' Rights (NSCWR)ùa combined working group formed by the AFL-CIO and UFW. The Religious Leaders' Task Force of NSCWR issued an appeal to supermarket owners and managers to support safe working conditions and just wages for strawberry workers in an attempt to unionize the strawberry fields without a consumer boycott. Several of the top U.S. grocery chainsùSafeway, Kroger, Lucky, Ralph's, and A & P (representing more than 6,000 stores nationwide)ùhave signed public statements supporting strawberry workers' rights. Clergy delegations from across the United States are also meeting with growers and workers to assist in creating environments where votes on union representation can be safe and fair.

The UFW's spring 1998 nationwide tour linked field workers with labor, religious, and community leaders to ask local Driscoll buyers to let berry workers organize. Soon after, workers at Swanton Berry Farm (which produces about 20 percent of California's organic strawberries) celebrated the first strawberry workers contract with the UFW. "It is the first contract and it's also very prophetic that we celebrate the signing just before the anniversary of CEsar Chavez's death," said UFW president Arturo Rodriguez. The Swanton Berry Farm contract gives workers wages of $7 to $11 an hour, medical and dental benefits, a pension plan, and a holiday on CEsar Chavez's birthday.

Swanton owner Jim Cochran considers unionization a way to attract quality workers. According to Cochran, "Whatever is good for the workers is good for me and it's good for the consumers."

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