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.
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.
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.
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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."