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Strawberry Short Change

[whitespace] anti-UFW leaders
David Bacon

Growing Disunion: Anti-UFW leaders (from left) Bertha Fernandez and Guadalupe Sanchez (with microphone) during a 1997 march. Jose Guadalupe Fernandez (young man with mustache, in profile and holding a flag), a member of the disbanded Agricultural Workers Committee, is the president of the new Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee.

A year ago, the UFW filed suit alleging strawberry growers were providing financial support for 'worker' front groups. New evidence totes up grower efforts to keep the UFW out of the fields.

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 over Watsonville's strawberry fields--and the hearts and minds of its workers.

"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 towards UFW supporters. It was like I was brainwashed."

He describes how foremen gave him special treatment when he was opposed to the UFW--invited him out for drinks, told him about AWC meetings and said he was one of them. "When they started asking me to beat up [UFW] organizers, then beat my co-workers who were listening to the union ... that's when I started to wonder what the UFW has to say that they were afraid of us hearing," Vargas says.

Video-taped footage from the July 1 confrontation at Coastal Berry Company in Watsonville showed strawberry picker Vargas surrounded and beaten by anti-union workers while fieldworker Sandra Rocha, a United Farm Workers supporter, was hit in the face with a case of berries. The man the Santa Cruz County Sheriff's Department named as instigator of the incident, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, was arrested by deputies.

Two weeks later, Fernandez suddenly reappeared as president of a new workers' organization, the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee (CBFC), and 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 boycotted by the UFW, Fernandez's fledgling group won. If the results are upheld, after a public hearing on Oct. 16, the committee will gain the right to represent Coastal Berry's 1,500 strawberry workers.

Casual viewers dismissed the melee and subsequent election as just another labor dispute. But UFW supporters and labor advocates see something deeper: further evidence of industry collusion to undercut the UFW through clandestine support of grower front groups posing as worker organizations.

A lawsuit initiated by the UFW on Oct. 14, 1997, in Santa Cruz Superior Court, charges that strawberry growers, shippers and industry representatives have given money to support these organizations. In UFW v. Dutra Farms, the union aims to prove that industry and its grower front groups conspired in a "fraudulent and unfair scheme of misleading the public" by representing the organizations as worker-advocacy groups funded by public donations 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 has changed its name several times but retained the same core board members. AgWA later became the Agricultural Workers Committee (AWC). Only a portion of AWC bank records have released, but UFW lawyer Mary Lynne Werlwas says she hopes to obtain all of them soon.

UFW v. Dutra Farms is set to go to trial this coming spring.


Reagan, Deukmejian and Lungren all have ties to UFW nemesis.


If the Suit Fits

WHEN UNITED FARM Workers co-founder and labor legend César Chávez died in 1993, the union was struggling through a decade of declining membership. UFW co-founder Dolores Huerta and new president Arturo Rodriguez wrestled with the question of how to lead the 30-year-old group through changing times.

After several strawberry farms on the Central Coast closed operations following UFW elections, the union decided to skip negotiations with individual farmers and take on the entire industry. For the past three years the UFW has called on other unions, supermarkets and social justice groups across the country to support its campaign to organize California's more than 27,000 strawberry workers, concentrating on the fertile fields of Watsonville and Salinas.

California's $585 million strawberry industry has fought back. The only union victory not followed by a farm closure was at Swanton Berry Farms in Santa Cruz--and even that election was twice protested by the Ventura County Growers Association.

Growers and industry representatives insist they are not anti-union. They say it's the workers who don't want the UFW representing them. But growers statewide have plowed under their fields after UFW elections. Numerous others have employed labor consultants with union-busting backgrounds.

Meanwhile, Fernandez's previous involvement with the Agricultural Workers Committee has raised UFW suspicions that his new Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee is also funded by growers.

Twenty-two-year-old Jose Guadalupe Fernandez lives in Watsonville and 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. Although Fernandez was subdued with pepper spray and 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 working conditions at the farm are good overall and that he plans to ask for few changes. He says that 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 Santa Cruz that if the election is upheld, the committee will meet to decide its goals for Coastal Berry strawberry workers, but he would not rule out accepting money from growers. "I don't think the growers will give me [anything]," Fernandez replies, "but the committee will meet to talk about it."

Antonio Barbosa, executive secretary of the ALRB, says he allowed the election to go forward in order to avoid further violence, adding that the board has a policy of allowing elections and litigating later. 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, growers have gotten a green light to fight union organizing by setting up company-funded front groups. In its Dutra Farms lawsuit, the UFW hopes to demonstrate that the industry has a history of forming such fraudulent labor organizations.

The lawsuit's original list of defendants included the predecessors of the AWC: Ag Workers of America and the Pro Workers Committee; AWC director Antonio Perez; grower Miguel Ramos; and Virgilio Yepez, a supervisor at Dutra. After receiving the Ag Workers of America bank records, UFW lawyers have expanded the list of defendants to include 10 industry representatives.

The evidence collected by the UFW now includes checks written by the powerful Irvine-based Western Growers Association, Premier Growers Association of Watsonville, Well-Pict Inc., Clint Miller Farms, New West Fruit Corporation, Del Llano, Watsonville Berry Cooler and Saticoy Berry Farms. The bank records were subpoenaed because Jose Oscar Ortega, treasurer for both AgWA and AWC, claims that the group's financial records have been lost--making cash contributions impossible to trace.

Attorneys for the defendants in the UFW v. Dutra Farms case have attempted several times to have the lawsuit thrown out. In December, Terry O'Connor of Western Legal Associates filed charges against the UFW, alleging the case is a SLAPP suit (Strategic Lawsuit Against Public Participation). The court rejected the 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 AWC declared bankruptcy. Despite protest from the defendants--who claim the lawsuit should be dropped because the group is bankrupt--the case is proceeding against individual defendants.

Shooting the Eagle

THE DEBUT EVENT of the Agricultural Workers Committee, on Aug. 10, 1997, was dubbed the "March for Truth" by event organizers. About 800 people marched through the streets of Watsonville, holding signs denouncing 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 in the march were from the Ramos, Dutra and Clint Miller farms. All three are defendants in UFW v. Dutra Farms.

The march was announced in radio advertisements on KSCO by Antonio Perez, the group's spokesperson, and Gary Caloroso of the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance (see sidebar). 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 later, 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 as they were paid to attend AWC meetings. They also said nonboard members were paid $7 an hour to help prepare for the march.

According to Marc Grossman, a spokesperson for the UFW, dozens of strawberry workers complained that they had been forced by their employers to attend a similar march in 1996 hosted by the Pro Workers Committee.

At the 1997 AWC march, Antonio Perez said that allegations of grower-funding are an insult to farm workers, adding that the UFW thinks 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. When asked by Santa Cruz Sentinel reporter Bob Linneman if the AWC had ever received money from growers, Perez said that he wasn't sure--that growers are members of the public and may have donated money as such (Sentinel, Aug. 11, 1997).

Perez's lawyer, Fresno-based attorney Ron Barsamian, skirts the question. "A more correct statement is that the defendant denies the allegations of the complaint of the lawsuit," Barsamian says.

short picture description Workers in Waiting: Sandra Rocha and Efrén Vargas say that the recent election at Coastal Berry had little to do with workers' choice.

George Sakkestad

Labor Contractions

THE PROBLEM IS, state labor law doesn't view an employer as just another member of the public when it comes to funding a labor organization meant to represent its employees. The 1975 California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which was modeled after the National Labor Relations Act, specifies that an employer cannot "dominate or interfere with the formation or administration of any labor organization, or contribute financial support to it."

This act was specifically intended to put an end to company unions, in-house labor organizations designed to prevent autonomous unions from representing workers. The ALRA specifically forbids discrimination in hiring or treatment based on union involvement and says that an employer 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," ALRB General Counsel Norma Turner says. "Either way, it's an employer interfering with free choice."

Turner adds, however, that 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.

"During the eight years of the Deukmejian administration [1983-1991], the ALRA was transformed from a law that facilitated agricultural labor unionization to one that placed increasing obstacles in its way," labor sociologists Patrick Mooney and Theo Majka write in Farmers' and Farm Workers' Movements.

Mooney and Majka detail how former Governor George Deukmejian, who campaigned in 1982 with hefty 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 has a "victim's complex." Deukmejian's campaign was run by the prominent Republican public relations firm The Dolphin Group (see sidebar).

Reality Checks

INDUSTRY REPRESENTATIVES, such as Driscoll Strawberry Associates vice president Phil Adrian, say the UFW is purporting to represent workers who simply don't want a union and spreading lies about working conditions that are hurting business. Adrian insists that he is not anti-union.

Last June, the company even 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 denied allegations that anti-union workers' groups have been funded by industry.

"Outrageous, outrageous," says Western Growers Association spokesperson Heather Flowers. Western Growers Association is one of the largest agricultural trade associations in the country--its members grow, ship and pack most of the fruits and vegetables in California and Arizona.

Western Growers Association attorney Doug Kerr says a $1,300 check written by the association to Ag Workers of America wasn't a donation but a payment for translation services used in co-producing a video with the group about workers' rights. He agreed to send a copy of the video to Metro Santa Cruz, 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 (the number is the same number listed on AgWA's business card). Dutra Farms also paid for items used in a 1996 march, including over $1,000 for Port-A-Potty rentals.

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

Newly released bank records also indicate that the L.A-based Dolphin Group paid for the making of AgWA T-shirts, according to UFW lawyers.

Industry publications show that growers were openly encouraged to contribute to anti-UFW workers' groups. In a September 1997 article in Vegetables West: Grower and PCA, titled "Ag Workers Committee: New Group Hopes to Dilute the UFW," editor Peter Cavanaugh 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, devoted to the upcoming Vegetables West Expo, was titled "Among the Rows: Are You Sick of the UFW?" The piece, also written by Cavanaugh, makes it clear that the 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 Werlwas, checks released this week indicate that Premier Growers Association and New West have each contributed $10,000 to the AWC and its predecessors.

Labor's Pains

THE FOUNDING ADVISORS of the Pro Workers Committee, or Comité par Trabajador (the predecessor of Ag Workers of America and the Agricultural Workers Committee), include labor consultants Joe Sanchez and Sergio Soto, who are employed by numerous local farms. Sanchez, who runs Sanchez Labor Management Consultant Service Inc. in Freedom, testified in a deposition for the Dutra lawsuit that he has participated in about 500 "campaigns," including work for Dutra Farms, Well-Pict Inc., Watsonville Berry Co-op, Richard Borrego, Kusumoto, Navaro, Shig Etow and Galardo Brothers, and various other growers for Driscoll and the Monterey Growers Association.

Sanchez's firm takes him to farms to talk to employees about their rights--mainly their right not to join the UFW. "That's what his campaigns are for, to talk to the people and tell them the other side of the story," Soto says.

For example, Sanchez testified in court that Dutra supervisor Virgilio Yepez came to talk to him about UFW organizing at Dutra Farms. "He told me that he was having a certain problem, and he was having some organizing activity and wanted me to go over and talk to his workers," Sanchez testified. Sanchez said the problem at Dutra was workers organizing with the UFW.

Sanchez also testified that he typically bills the Monterey Growers Association for work at MGA-affiliated farms, that Well-Pict had him on a $4,000-a-month retainer and that he bills Driscoll directly for his services.

In a recent interview, Sanchez insisted he's not anti-union. "I was in a union myself for many years," Sanchez says.

Local unions have gotten quite a different impression. Fritz Conle of Teamsters Local 890 in Salinas says he has heard Sanchez give his speeches to workers.

"Sanchez and Soto are basically hired guns ... demagogues. They say anything to workers to convince them not to join the UFW," Conle says. "He'll do whatever he can to con workers. He'll come across like their best friend--only he's the one making $150 an hour." Conle says that at a "labor consultation" five years ago he heard Sanchez tell a group of minimum-wage workers with no benefits that the union would hinder their status at the company.

Sanchez and Soto admit to helping found the Pro Workers Committee. It was Soto who filed for the incorporation of AgWA, a move that made donation lists and bankrolls private.

"At first, it was supposed to just be a group to represent the workers, and I do believe a lot of those workers out there need help," Sanchez says. "It wasn't supposed to be controlled by managers or growers."

By spring 1997, Soto and Sanchez had broken off ties with AgWA.

The tactics of Sanchez and Soto, and the violence at the Coastal Berry demonstration, mirror those described in Martin Jay Levitt's 1993 book, Confessions of a Union Buster. Levitt worked in more than 250 customized union-busting campaigns across America, beginning in 1969, and he now speaks to union workers about the secret tactics of his former profession.

Levitt writes that he always presented the union as outside money-hungry invaders, taught supervisors to despise and fear the union and encouraged violence. "Spontaneous fist fights broke out ... we welcomed it all. Every act was fuel for our anti-union campaign," Levitt writes. "We endlessly admonished our foremen to point out to their crews that the union had driven a wedge of hate into a once unified work force."

Union Dues

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.

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 that 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 vs. 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, is still waiting for her last paycheck and workers compensation.

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From the October 15-21, 1998 issue of Metro Santa Cruz.

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