Photo by David Bacon

WATSONVILLE — When state Labor Board agent Mauricio Nuño read out the vote totals, after counting the ballots cast in the Coastal Berry union election two weeks ago, José Rojas couldn’t keep from crying. Rojas had campaigned for the United Farm Workers for a full three and a half years among his fellow pickers at the nation’s largest strawberry grower.

On hearing the results, Rojas’ friend Isabel Rendon leaned in shock against a wall in a corner of the Salinas office of the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). She also had voted just hours earlier, feeling optimistic. Both were rehired two years ago after being blacklisted for union activity, and Rendon had hoped that with the election “these abuses [would] finally end.”

Instead, the UFW received 589 votes, while the Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee had won 670. Eighty-three workers had voted for no union at all.

Last week, a runoff election had a similar outcome. The UFW’s 598 votes were overcome by 688 for the committee. While 92 disputed ballots remained to be investigated, it seemed clear the committee would gain the handful it needed to win outright.

Since the election, Rojas and Rendon’s shock has been duplicated many times over among UFW activists at the company, while thousands of union supporters nationwide wonder what happened.

Beginning in the spring of 1996, the union sought to mount one of the most publicized organizing drives in the country — the effort to represent more than 20,000 workers in California’s $783-million-per-year strawberry industry. But at the main target of that drive, a company with a union-friendly owner called Coastal Berry, the UFW’s strategy failed in the face of heavy-handed field foremen and an organization with apparent ties to strawberry growers.

The focus of controversy has now shifted to the ALRB, which, despite new appointments by Democratic Governor Gray Davis, has declined to investigate charges that the committee maintains illegal ties to the owners. A Weekly inquiry has uncovered facts that call into question the committee’s bona fides as a union.

In 1997, the UFW decided to focus its unionization campaign on a single grower, a division of Monsanto called the Gargiulo Co. Monsanto sold Gargiulo to a partnership of David Gladstone and Landon Butler, two East Coast entrepreneurs with a history of investing AFL-CIO pension funds. The company, the world’s largest strawberry grower, was renamed Coastal Berry.

Gladstone, who became sole owner after Butler dropped out, pledged to remain neutral in the face of the UFW organizing drive. Pro-UFW workers like Rojas and Rendon, who had been blacklisted and denied jobs at the beginning of the season, were rehired.

Other Watsonville growers were infuriated. The Western Growers Association even filed suit against Coastal Berry and the UFW, charging that the neutrality agreement amounted to collusion. But it was the association, along with 19 individual growers, that had to pay last January to settle a suit brought by the UFW, after the growers were found to have paid $56,269.11 to a front union they organized called Agricultural Workers of America.

Soon after last year’s season began, anti-UFW foremen and fieldworkers staged two work stoppages against Coastal Berry; during the second action, a group of UFW supporters were attacked when they continued working.

Within days, one of the anti-union leaders appeared in the Salinas ALRB office to file a petition to represent Coastal Berry workers on behalf of a hitherto-unknown organization, the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee. Despite UFW protests that the committee was linked to growers, and that its active participants had engaged in violence against pro-union workers, the Salinas ALRB office proceeded to hold an election. The UFW boycotted, and in a contest in which the alternative was no union at all, the committee won. That election was later thrown out because 162 Coastal Berry workers in Oxnard had not been given the chance to vote.

When this year’s season started, the UFW itself filed for an election. The committee then filed a petition to get on the same ballot, a petition that included the signatures of more than 20 percent of Coastal Berry employees and a form declaring its intention to act as a union. Over the past two weeks, in two elections, the workers voted for the committee, not the UFW, to represent Coastal Berry’s workers.

But is the committee in any sense a union? The ALRB has ignored calls that it investigate allegations that the committee is linked to growers. If true, such ties would violate the state Agricultural Labor Relations Act’s prohibition on company unions, and would prevent the committee from representing workers or participating in union elections.

Under the law, a legitimate labor organization must claim a desire to negotiate with the company over wages and working conditions. While the committee has filled out forms stating that intention, statements made to the Weekly by its leading official, vice president Sergio Leal, contradict that claim.

According to Leal, wages and conditions at Coastal Berry need little improvement. “They’re a great company,” he said. “I had no complaints when I worked there, and the people [today] have no complaints. We’re not going to change anything.” Indeed, the purpose of the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee, according to Leal, is to campaign against the union. “People aren’t fighting the company,” he said. “They’re fighting the UFW.” Furthermore, Leal added, the committee has no constitution or bylaws, and issues no public notices of meetings.

Leal’s brother is Enrique Leal, production manager of several Watsonville properties, including the Beach Ranch, where the anti-UFW violence took place last year. Sergio Leal was himself fired by Coastal Berry in January. He said the company had accused him of harassing other workers, and threatening to drive the company out of business if it signed a contract with the UFW. Company president Ernest Farley wouldn’t comment on the firing.

The committee’s attorney doesn’t seem to be the typical union lawyer, either. Representing the committee during this year’s election was Salinas attorney James Gumberg. According to Mike Johnston, an official of Teamsters Union Local 890 in Salinas, Gumberg has represented growers and packers in negotiations. “He’s definitely a management-side lawyer, and those people don’t switch sides,” Johnston said.

“This guy’s from the ranchers,” Leal confirmed in an interview. “He works for us for free.”

Gumberg denied he was being paid for his work for the committee by other growers. “That’s absurd,” he said. But when told that Leal said the committee wasn’t paying him, Gumberg admitted that “for the most part, it’s true,” though he also noted that “my work’s just starting.” Gumberg said he had never represented a union before, but had undergone a change of heart. “I thought [the committee members] were worthy and being oppressed,” he explained.

When asked if the ALRB should have tried to determine whether the committee was a genuine union before putting it on the ballot this year, board general counsel Paul Richardson, a Pete Wilson appointee, said the UFW could file unfair labor practice charges, or object to the election results. Both processes, however, involve investigations only after workers have voted.

The ALRB also ignored the fact that the committee never filed forms required by the U.S. Department of Labor which detail a union’s sources of income and the salaries of its officers. Marvin Brenner, assistant general counsel for the ALRB’s Salinas office, said simply, “I don’t think the state looks at federal requirements.”

UFW organizers believed the sale of Coastal Berry to a neutral owner would guarantee workers the ability to vote freely, without fear of retaliation. But with the sale, the UFW also altered its in-the-field strategy of organizing workers around demands for immediate improvements in conditions, which has won the union a succession of contracts in other companies.

At Coastal Berry, however, neutrality on top and election campaigning at the bottom didn’t create enough organized strength among workers in the crews to fight the vehemently anti-UFW foremen — who were themselves seeking to curry favor and leverage with other major growers — or to stop the committee. Perhaps no pledge of neutrality by management can guarantee rights for workers which they aren’t strong enough to win on the ground. Whatever the outcome of any official investigation of the committee, the UFW has learned a bitter lesson.

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