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Strawberry Split

[whitespace] Sandra Rocha and Efren Vargas Workers in Waiting: Sandra Rocha and Efrén Vargas, who were attacked by an anti-UFW agitator in Watsonville last summer, say a recent election at the Coastal Berry Company had little to do with workers' choice.

George Sakkestad

UFW lawyers follow the money to show that anti-union groups are fronts for big agribusiness

By Mary Spicuzza

THREE MONTHS AFTER he was beaten by anti-UFW workers, Efrén Vargas sits quietly in his Castroville home. He wears an intricate crucifix hanging next to a UFW button with an image of César Chávez looking hopefully toward the horizon. As his daughter colors busily next to him, Vargas tells his story of the struggle for the hearts and minds of Watsonville's strawberry fieldworkers.

"I was once anti-union," Vargas says solemnly. "I was manipulated by the foreman, who told me the UFW just wanted to take money from the workers. They told me how to act toward UFW supporters. It was like I was brainwashed."

Vargas describes how foremen gave him special treatment and invited him out for drinks when he opposed the UFW.

"When they started asking me to beat up [UFW] organizers, then beat my co-workers who were listening to the union," Vargas says, "that's when I started to wonder what the UFW has to say that they were afraid of us hearing."

Videotape footage of a July 1 confrontation at the Coastal Berry Company in Watsonville shows Vargas surrounded and beaten by anti-union workers while fieldworker Sandra Rocha, a UFW supporter, is hit in the face with a case of berries. The man the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department named the instigator of the incident, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, was arrested by deputies. Two weeks later, Fernandez reappeared as president of a new workers' organization--the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee.

Fernandez filed a petition with the state's Agricultural Labor Relations Board for a unionization vote. Despite the violence in the fields, the board allowed the vote to go forward, and in a July 23 election, which was boycotted by the UFW, Fernandez's fledgling group won.

Labor advocates see the new union as little more than a grower front group for growers posing as a workers' organization. They point to evidence of clandestine support and industry collusion--all designed to undercut the UFW.

A lawsuit initiated by the UFW last October charges that strawberry growers and shippers have given money to support organizations similar to the one at Coastal Berry. In UFW v. Dutra Farms, the union aims to prove that major players in the strawberry industry conspired in a "fraudulent and unfair scheme of misleading the public" by representing the organizations as worker-funded advocacy groups, when they were receiving money from growers.

UFW lawyers have recently uncovered evidence in the form of bank records and canceled checks directly linking growers to a previous "worker" organization, Ag Workers of America (AgWA), a group that later became the Agricultural Workers Committee (AWC). UFW v. Dutra Farms is set to go to trial next spring.

If the Suit Fits

TWENTY-TWO-YEAR-OLD Jose Fernandez, a former member of the AWC, has worked as a truck driver for Coastal Berry for four seasons. He is not a berry picker and does not work in the fields. At a recent meeting of union supporters at the Watsonville Community Center, a group of some 20 workers said that they had only heard of him a few days before the election that won him the presidency of the workers' group.

Although Fernandez had to be subdued with pepper spray and was arrested for assaulting a peace officer during the July 1 demonstration, charges were dropped, and Coastal Berry has taken no disciplinary action against him.

Immediately after the July 23 election, Fernandez told National Public Radio that he believed working conditions at the farm were good overall and that he plans to ask for few changes. He says the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee, made up of 24 core members, hopes to visit other farms to teach them how to organize. But he insists the committee is not a union and will not collect dues--unless workers choose to contribute.

In a recent interview, Fernandez told Metro that he would not rule out accepting money from growers. "I don't think the growers will give me [anything]," Fernandez said, "but the committee will meet to talk about it."

Antonio Barbosa, executive secretary of the Agricultural Labor Relations Bureau, says he allowed the election to go forward in order to avoid further violence. The decision was slammed by labor and political leaders, including Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), chair of the state Senate Industrial Relations Committee. Union advocates contend that by allowing the election at Coastal Berry to proceed, state officials have given growers' union-busting efforts a green light.

The 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was modeled after a federal law, specifies that an employer cannot "dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization, or contribute financial support to it." The law was intended to put an end to "company unions"--organizations designed to prevent autonomous unions from representing workers. The law specifically says a company and its managers cannot "encourage or discourage membership in any labor organization."

"We've had hundreds of cases where a supervisor might offer to give employees a ride home, and mention they might get a raise if the union loses, or where an employer directly threatens to close down if the union wins," says Norma Turner of the state labor board. "Either way, it's an employer interfering with free choice."

In its Dutra Farms lawsuit, the UFW hopes to demonstrate that the industry has a history of forming fraudulent labor organizations.

UFW attorneys have found more than $67,000 in checks written by the Western Growers Association and a dozen local farming groups, made out to anti-union organizations.

Attorneys for the defendants have attempted several times to have the lawsuit thrown out. The court rejected one claim and fined growers' attorneys $8,000, payable to UFW lawyers, for filing a frivolous complaint. Soon after another motion to stay the case was rejected, the Agricultural Workers Committee declared bankruptcy. The case is proceeding against individual defendants.

Labor Contractions

THE DEBUT EVENT of the Agricultural Workers Committee, on Aug. 10, 1997, was dubbed the "March for Truth" by its organizers. About 800 people marched through the streets of Watsonville, holding signs denouncing the UFW's leaders, Arturo Rodriguez and Dolores Huerta, as "hijos del diablo" (children of the devil) and calling for the UFW to get out of the fields.

Many of the marchers who participated were from Dutra Farms and other defendants in the UFW lawsuit.

The event incorporated expensive video and sound equipment and a live band. It ended with a skit in which a black eagle, the UFW symbol, swooped down to attack a worker, only to be shot by a helpful rancher. The march ended with cheers of "Rancheros! Rancheros! Rah! Rah! Rah!"

AWC members insisted at the time that they were not paid to participate.

But in a deposition for the Dutra case, board members Jose Oscar Ortega and Martin Garcia testified that they were paid $10 an hour to make signs for the march--the same amount they were paid to attend AWC meetings. They said others were paid $7 an hour.

At the march, Antonio Perez said that allegations of grower funding are an insult to farm workers, adding that the UFW believes workers cannot think for themselves. He claimed that until the AWC filed for bankruptcy last June, it was funded solely through donations and by selling its "no union" hats, T-shirts and buttons.

Perez received a full-time salary for his work as director of the AWC. Prior to joining the group he worked as a supervisor at Miguel Ramos' farm, another defendant in the case.

Norma Turner of the state labor board says there is a gray zone in the law when it comes to whether employers and industry representatives can contribute funds to a labor organization made up of more than just their employees. She says the board demands that each case be decided separately. This interpretation frustrates labor advocates, fueling distrust over the board's dedication to protecting workers' rights.

In the book Farmers and Farm Workers Movements, authors Patrick Mooney and Theo Majka detail how former Governor George Deukmejian, who campaigned in 1982 with substantial donations from agricultural corporations, appointed ALRB staff with backgrounds in agribusiness, severely cut the board's budget and encouraged poor enforcement of labor law--telling the Wall Street Journal that the UFW had a "victim's complex."

Field of Schemes

LAST JUNE, Driscoll Strawberry Associates of Wastonville paid for two Catholic priests and a nun to be flown out from St. Louis to personally examine labor conditions. But the effort backfired when religious leaders later released a statement criticizing Driscoll for its wages, working conditions and intimidation of union supporters.

Every industry representative interviewed for this article denied allegations that strawberry growers are funding anti-union workers' groups.

"Outrageous, outrageous," says Heather Flowers of the Western Growers Association. When asked about a $1,300 check written by the association to Ag Workers of America, attorney Doug Kerr says the money wasn't a donation, but a payment for translation services used in co-producing a video about workers' rights. He agreed to send a copy of the video to Metro, but it never arrived.

UFW lawyers have discovered through bank records that Dutra Farms paid several bills for Ag Workers of America. The Watsonville farm paid for a cell phone used by AgWA president Guadalupe Sanchez, as well as items used in a 1996 march, including more than $1,000 for Port-A-Potty rentals.

Clint Miller Farms, a contract grower and board member of Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., wrote numerous checks to the group (marked as "donations"), paid a local labor consultant for "no union" buttons and funded the making of more than 300 copies of AgWA videos. Neither Jim Dutra and his lawyers nor Clint Miller Farms returned calls to Metro.

Industry publications also show that growers were openly encouraged to contribute to anti-UFW workers' groups. In a September 1997 article in the trade journal Vegetables West, titled "Ag Workers Committee: New Group Hopes to Dilute the UFW," editor Peter Cavanaugh issues a call for money, and assures growers of their privacy.

"All individuals and agricultural companies are urged to help the Ag Workers Committee in their fight for reason. Please send checks to Ag Workers Committee, Inc.," Cavanaugh writes. "Since the Committee is incorporated, the names of the donors are kept secret."

The cover story for Vegetables West the following month was titled "Among the Rows: Are You Sick of the UFW?" The piece, also written by Cavanaugh, makes it clear that an Oct. 1 industry expo in Monterey was a nonprofit event to fund the AWC.

"The Agricultural Workers Committee is a friend of the industry," Cavanaugh writes. "Net proceeds from the expo will go to the AWC."

According to UFW lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas, strawberry farm organizations have contributed more than $67,000 to the AWC and its predecessors.

Driscoll vice president Phil Adrian says that he believes the only way to give workers a voice is to have elections and let the workers choose who can best represent them. "It's about what the workers want," Adrian says.

Enrique Caloroso of the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance agrees. Last year, he told George magazine, "You wouldn't have workers coming back to work every year if they didn't like it."

A California Census Bureau study, released in September, shows a less placid picture.

Titled "Farmworkers in California," the report says the state's farm workers work harder for less pay and have poorer living conditions than virtually any other employment group. It reported that 80 percent of California's farm workers earn less than $10,000 a year, with half earning below $5,000. Forty percent are uninsured, with their families uninsured in greater numbers. Nationwide, approximately 800,000 farm workers lack adequate shelter.

A decision on the Coastal Berry election will come after public testimony this month, months before UFW v. Dutra Farms goes to trial this spring.

Meanwhile, Efrén Vargas says he is still harassed by anti-union supervisors in Watsonville's strawberry fields. Sandra Rocha, who hasn't returned to Coastal Berry fields since she was hurt in the July 1 violence, waited four months before receiving workers compensation.

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From the November 5-11, 1998 issue of Metro.

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