By Hillel Aron
By Joseph Tsidulko
By Patrick Range McDonald
By David Futch
By Hillel Aron
By Dennis Romero
By Jill Stewart
By Dennis Romero
On July 1, truckers and other anti-UFW workers and foremen stopped work again. When a group of UFW supporters at one Coastal Berry ranch began picking, an anti-UFW group arrived and assaulted them; three union supporters were taken to the hospital. Some of the altercation was captured on videotape - in one segment, pro-UFW worker Sandra Rocha is slammed in the head with a box of strawberries.
When sheriff's deputies arrived, a leader of the anti-UFW group, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, was arrested for hitting a deputy. No other arrests were made, and charges were never pressed against Fernandez.
The following day, UFW president Rodriguez and secretary-treasurer Dolores Huerta led a march against the violence, demanding that Smith and Gladstone discipline the foremen and workers responsible.
The company did nothing. "We have no conclusive evidence showing what occurred," Smith said, adding that, though Coastal Berry later began an inquiry, "The Agricultural Labor Relations Board sent us a letter telling us to stop our investigation," claiming it would prejudice its own.
Asked why none of those involved had been disciplined, Gladstone said, "I have no evidence, just accusations."
Soon after the skirmish in the fields, Fernandez and his associates went to the Salinas office of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. ALRB representative Jenny Diaz told Fernandez how to draft a petition for a representation election, on behalf of a hitherto unknown organization, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee.
According to sworn statements given by workers to the UFW, Coastal Berry foremen and drivers then collaborated in collecting signatures, including stopping work while crew members signed up. On July 16, Fernandez filed a petition calling for an election.
The UFW immediately protested that the committee was actually a company union - such house organs are illegal under state and federal labor law - and demanded that the board investigate the violence, and possible ties between the committee and company management, before allowing any election. The board responded simply that the signatures were sufficient, and went ahead. Voting was slated for July 23.
The UFW refused to participate. "We won't give any legitimacy to this company union by appearing on the ballot with them," explained Rodriguez. Instead, the UFW urged workers to vote for no union.
The day before the vote, AFL-CIO president John Sweeney wrote to Malon Wilkus, CEO of American Capital Strategies, an investment house handling union funds, that is partly owned by David Gladstone. Sweeney warned Wilkus that Coastal Berry supervisors had "orchestrated a campaign of intimidation and acts of violence" against UFW supporters, while "Mr. Gladstone has failed to discipline his supervisors."
"No one," Sweeney concluded, "who allows their supervisors to organize physical attacks on workers, to repeatedly violate a neutrality agreement, and to coerce employees into joining a company union can also expect to do business with the labor movement under a different corporate logo."
When ballots were cast the following day, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee collected 523 votes, while 410 voted for no union. The UFW promptly filed objections with the ALRB, charging that balloting was conducted in a climate of violence and intimidation, and that the board had permitted a company union to file a petition.
Gladstone himself also filed legal objections to the results, citing intimidation and contending that the farm workers committee "was formed for the sole purpose of preventing workers from unionizing." Last month, he told a reporter he was stunned at the sudden success of Fernandez's committee. "It's incredible that such a thing could happen without anybody knowing it," he said in a Wall Street Journal interview. More recently, Gladstone told the Weekly, "I'm not against the union. How many growers do you know who go into the fields to talk to workers?"
But in Watsonville, Coastal Berry president Smith claims there was nothing wrong with the election. "We felt the representation issue should be brought to closure," he said. "I didn't see any evidence of coercion or fear in that election." As to Gladstone's contrary position, Smith said laconically, "There are differences between the owner and the management; we're not always in concert."
In an NPR interview following the election, Fernandez stated that he did not plan to demand any changes in wages or benefits from Coastal Berry. Gladstone said he hasn't heard from Fernandez or his committee since the election.
Fernandez, 22 years old, worked previously with another shadowy group, which has functioned as a company union on other Watsonville strawberry ranches, the Agricultural Workers of America (AgWA). This organization has roots that go back to the first efforts by Watsonville growers to fight the UFW.
The story dates back to 1995, when workers at VCNM, a large Watsonville strawberry company, voted 332-50 for the UFW. Five days later, VCNM plowed under a quarter of its operations; the firm later was dissolved.
The plowing of the VCNM fields has become a story retold by anti-UFW campaigners, who say the union will drive growers out of business. Many VCNM workers later were hired at Gargiulo, now Coastal Berry, where some of them continued to blame the union for their bitter experience.
Growers began efforts to set up a company union in Watsonville with a march by foremen and anti-UFW activists in 1996. It was organized by Joe Sanchez, an anti-union consultant with roots in the strawberry industry, and his associate Sergio Soto, who claims he came to Watsonville at workers' request to fight the UFW.