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WATSONVILLE - Last year, when the AFL-CIO engineered the sale of Gargiulo Corp., the largest strawberry grower in the Pajaro Valley, to a pair of pro-union investors, most observers believed the United Farm Workers to be on the verge of a major breakthrough in its three-year campaign to unionize the pickers and, at the same time, revitalize the storied union.
It didn't work out that way.
This July, a counterattack by Watsonville growers and field foremen forced a union election at the former Gargiulo, now renamed Coastal Berry Corp. It was not at all the election the UFW wanted, or even the new owners: Workers were given a choice of casting ballots for a company union, or no union at all. The UFW sat out in protest, and the bogus union won the day.
The election was immediately denounced as fraudulent by the UFW and many state legislators, including Hilda Solis, chair of the state Senate's subcommittee on labor. But as it stands, the decision poses a threat far beyond the strawberry industry. Company unions, having received a green light from state officials despite violent tactics used by their backers, may now appear elsewhere in California agriculture. The strategy may spread to other industries as well.
Since the beginning of the strawberry harvest in March 1996, the UFW has mounted the largest bottom-up union organizing drive in the country today, trying to break the growers' grip on more than 15,000 berry pickers in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys. In 1997, that campaign seemed to be cresting.
As picking started in April, some 30,000 farm workers and their supporters marched through Watsonville's barrio, demanding that growers rehire fired workers and respect their right to organize freely. The AFL-CIO organized delegations to supermarket managers around the state, asking them to sign a pledge demanding that growers use 5 cents from the sale of each basket of berries to raise wages, and that they rehire union supporters. Over 3,000 stores, including Lucky's, Ralphs and other chains, signed the pledge.
In particular, the activists targeted Gargiulo, a subsidiary of Monsanto Co., which was particularly vulnerable to consumer boycotts because of its many other brand-name products. The pressure paid off in June, when AFL-CIO president John Sweeney arranged a meeting between UFW president Arturo Rodriguez and Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro. Together, they arrived at a neutrality agreement, requiring that the company stop its anti-union campaign and rehire blacklisted workers. Each party agreed not to campaign against the other.
At the same time, Monsanto, a major manufacturer of agricultural chemicals, could ill afford to antagonize other growers. The problem was solved when two investors, Landon Butler and David Gladstone - with no previous experience in agriculture but a long history of pooling AFL-CIO pension funds for real estate investments - agreed to buy its strawberry operation and run it as an independent company. The AFL-CIO played a behind-the-scenes role in putting the deal together, as did Vice President Al Gore and Congressman Richard Gephardt (D-Missouri).
As the summer progressed, the new owners proved more than cooperative. According to Gladstone, "I went into the fields and talked to the crews myself, telling them we would respect their rights." Butler, formerly deputy chief of staff and White House liaison to organized labor in the Carter administration, later withdrew as an investor, leaving Gladstone in charge.
But these high-level maneuvers failed to take into account the reality in the fields at Coastal Berry, where the foremen and ranch managers who run the day-to-day operations were deeply invested in their control over pay rosters and working conditions. The prospect of a UFW contract, with union-administered hiring halls, was an immediate threat.
Moreover, other major growers were infuriated at what they saw as a betrayal, and worried about the possibility of a UFW strawberry boycott. If Coastal Berry were to sign a UFW contract, supermarkets could satisfy customers by buying its fruit, repeating the 1970s table-grape boycott, when Coachella grower Lionel Steinberg made a fortune as the only union grape grower.
Coastal Berry became the target of the growers' anti-UFW campaign.
At the beginning of this year's season in May, secretaries from the company office went into the fields to read Coastal Berry's official declaration of neutrality to farm workers. But to the pickers and packers fearful for their meager livelihoods and experienced in the harsh treatment of union sympathizers at other sites, the pledge meant little. "My foreman told me how to talk to other workers in my crew," recalled Efren Vargas, a Coastal Berry picker who became a UFW supporter. "They told me how to make trouble for the UFW organizers when they came to the field to talk to us."
Coastal Berry foremen had a base of support among the company's truck drivers, and the loaders and box counters in the crews. These jobs, which pay better wages than those received by pickers, were handed out as plum assignments.
Tensions escalated as the harvest moved into full swing. On the morning of June 24, company truck drivers refused to work. They gathered in front of the office, demanding that the company oppose the union's organizing campaign. Coastal Berry president David Smith, who oversees Watsonville operations for the Washington, D.C.-based Gladstone, sent all the workers home.