By Michael Goldstein
By Dennis Romero
By Sarah Fenske
By Matthew Mullins
By Patrick Range McDonald
By LA Weekly
By Dennis Romero
By Simone Wilson
Four thousand workers and company personnel participated in that march, reflecting real divisions among strawberry workers. "In every company," said Efren Barajas, UFW vice president, "there are permanent truck drivers, checkers and assistants, who are very close to the foreman, and get much better wages and treatment. The growers use that group."
During the march, Soto announced the formation of the Pro-Workers Committee, whose purpose, he said, was to educate workers about their right not to belong to the UFW. After the '96 harvest ended, the organization changed its name, becoming the AgWA. A second growers' march, in August 1997, led by Guadalupe Sanchez and Coastal Berry's Fernandez, ended with a cheer for the growers: "Rancheros! Rancheros! Rah! Rah! Rah!"
The UFW sued AgWA last December for being a company union, and in the course of discovery unearthed a series of checks written to AgWA by several growers. The UFW suit also tied AgWA to the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance, a creation of the Dolphin Group public-relations firm. The Dolphin Group was set up in 1974 by political consultant Bill Roberts, who helped manage Ronald Reagan's original campaign for California governor in 1966, and the firm has fought every UFW boycott and political initiative since then from its West L.A. offices.
As the UFW lawsuit moved closer to trial this spring, AgWA suddenly declared bankruptcy. By then, however, the action had moved into Coastal Berry itself.
In mounting an industrywide campaign in the strawberry fields, the UFW and the AFL-CIO treated Watsonville as a giant "hot shop," an arena where workers were already leaning toward organized labor. Led by UFW president Rodriguez, son-in-law of UFW founder Cesar Chavez, organizers believed workers could be persuaded to take quick action to gain contracts, while consumer action in the cities would back them with economic pressure on growers.
From the beginning, the campaign relied on large, public marches and rallies, but not the quiet work of organizing around fights over work-related problems in the crews - organizers focused instead on getting workers to sign union cards. One problem the organizers faced was that a large percentage of strawberry workers are young, recent immigrants, with no previous knowledge of the union or their rights as workers.
The UFW's high-profile campaign did, however, spur the growers themselves to action. While using the Dolphin Group outside Watsonville to sway the media, in Watsonville growers began organizing the first company union - and in the fields, foremen began to openly confront workers sympathetic to the UFW.
Despite the setback at Coastal Berry, "We are not walking away," the UFW's Rodriguez said. "We are committed to the long haul to ensure improvements for workers." But other developments could shape the union's future as well.
The week after the vote, the labor subcommittee of the state Senate held hearings on the ALRB's decision authorizing the disputed union election. "The ALRB is dysfunctional; it's clearly in collusion with the growers," declared committee chair Hilda Solis, after hearing testimony from workers and ALRB representatives. Neither Coastal Berry nor the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee appeared.
Whether change is in store for the ALRB depends largely on next month's elections. Republican Dan Lungren will undoubtedly ally himself with agribusiness, as did current Governor Pete Wilson and his predecessor George Deukmejian. If Democratic candidate Gray Davis prevails, the union and its Democratic allies in the Legislature are expected to push for new personnel to administer the law.
In the meantime, however, if the ALRB certifies the Coastal Berry Farmworker Committee as the legal representative of the company's workers, the UFW will be barred from seeking a new election for a year. That would give crucial time to growers to consolidate their hold, not only at Coastal Berry, but over strawberry pickers throughout the Pajaro Valley.
As for the experiment in sympathetic ownership, Gladstone seems chagrined by the whole experience. Aside from being vilified by the UFW, he's also being sued by the powerful Western Growers Association for being "directly or indirectly controlled by the AFL-CIO and its agents, the UFW."
"The other growers hate me," Gladstone groused in an interview.
This year's labor wars, it seems, have soured Gladstone on organized labor. "I know how to manage my own people," he said. "I don't need a union to tell me."
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