David Bacon Stories & Photographs
A Company Union Battles the UFW in Watsonville
by David Bacon

WATSONVILLE, CA (8/7/98) -- Last year, when the AFL-CIO helped engineer 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 was on the verge of a major breakthrough in its three-year campaign to unionize the pickers.

Instead, this year in late July, a counterattack by Watsonville growers forced a union election at the former Gargiulo, now renamed Coastal Berry Corp. But it was not the election the UFW wanted, though, and workers found themselves facing the choice between a company union and no union at all. The UFW refused to appear on the ballot, and the company union won.

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 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 even become widespread in 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 hold companies wield over the 15,000 berry pickers of the Pajaro and Salinas Valleys. In 1997, that campaign made an apparent breakthrough.

As picking started in April, 30,000 farmworkers and their supporters marched through Watsonville's barrio, demanding that growers rehire the fired workers and respect their right to organize freely. The AFL-CIO organized delegations to supermarket managers, asking them to sign a pledge demanding that growers use 5 from the sale of each basket of berries to raise wages, and that they rehire union supporters. Over 3000 stores, including Lucky's, Ralphs and other chains signed the pledge.

The UFW and AFL-CIO targeted Gargiulo, a subsidiary of Monsanto Corp., vulnerable to consumer boycotts because of its many other brand-name products. The pressure paid off. That June 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 the company to stop its anti-UFW campaign and rehire blacklisted workers, cracking the growers' united front. The new owners agreed not to challenge the results of any election won by the UFW, and the union and Coastal Berry agreed not to campaign against each 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 little 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 Gore and Congressman Richard Gephardt.

Butler, formerly deputy chief of staff in the Carter administration and White House liaison to organized labor, later withdrew as an investor, leaving Gladstone in charge.

Other major growers were infuriated at what they saw as a betrayal, and worried about the possibility of a UFW-organized strawberry boycott. If Coastal Berry were to sign a UFW contract, supermarkets could satisfy customers by buying its fruit, while boycotted strawberries of anti-union growers languished in cold storage. This would repeat 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 read Coastal Berry's official declaration of neutrality to crews of pickers in the fields. Gladstone also says he went to the fields to tell workers the company would respect their rights. But to the company's foremen and ranch managers, who run the crews and day-to-day operations, the pledge meant little. On at least one Coastal Berry ranch, foremen had hiring power and used it to give jobs to relatives and friends. The prospect of a UFW contract, with union-administered hiring halls, was an immediate threat.

"My foreman told me how to talk to other workers in my crew," recalls Coastal Berry picker Efren Vargas, later 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.

On the morning of June 24, with the harvest in full swing, 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. According to a suit later filed by the UFW and AFL-CIO, foremen and supervisors, including Joel Lobato and Roberto Chavez, egged on the violence. Efren Vargas was hit in the head, knocked to the ground and kicked repeatedly. A sister-in-law of Lobato's slammed pro-UFW worker Sandra Rocha in the head with a box of strawberries.

When Vargas appealed to Chavez to end the violence, Chavez allegedly responded: "It's okay, I sent them." Lobato, the suit claims, told Vargas "You deserved to get fucked up." Lobato and Chavez are not listed in local phone directories; Coastal Berry representatives would not put calls through to them.

When sheriffs arrived, a leader of the anti-UFW group, Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, was arrested for hitting a deputy. No other arrests were made, and charges have not been pressed against Fernandez.

The following day, UFW President Arturo 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 says, 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. The ALRB letter provided the company with a pretext not to take disciplinary action.

Gladstone says that Freddy Capuyan, head of the ALRB office in Salinas, told him even earlier to stop his investigation, a charge Capuyan denies. Asked why none of those involved had been disciplined, Gladstone said, "I have no evidence, just accusations."

Days after the skirmish in the fields, Fernandez and his associates went to the Salinas office of the 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, foremen then stopped crews from working to allow anti-UFW activists to collect signatures. On July 16, Fernandez filed the petition as the committee's representative.

The UFW immediately protested, and demanded that the board investigate the violence, and possible ties between the committee and company management, before allowing any election. The board nevertheless went ahead, and voting took place on 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. The UFW urged workers to vote for no union.

The day before the vote, President John Sweeney wrote to Malon Wilkus, CEO of American Capital Strategies, an investment house handling union funds 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 or act in any meaningful manner to protect the rights of his employees to organize."

"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."

Of 933 votes cast, 523 were for the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee. The following day, 700 Coastal Berry workers refused to work in protest of the election. The UFW filed objections with the ALRB, charging that balloting was conducted in a climate of violence and intimidation, that the board had permitted a company union to file a petition, and that 162 workers in Oxnard, though eligible to vote, had not even been notified that the election was taking place.

Gladstone himself also filed legal objections to the results, ironically citing misconduct by his own management -- supervisors' participation in the violence, and company domination of the Coastal Berry Farmworkers Committee. "I talked to the people involved on a number of occasions, before they started calling themselves that," he told the Weekly. "They'd been in the office before, to tell me they didn't want the UFW in the fields ... Somewhere along the line someone encouraged them to go talk to the ALRB. Maybe it was other growers, but I've looked for the dirt and I can't find it." Gladstone says he's not against the union. "How many growers do you know who go into the fields to talk to workers?" he asked.

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 says. "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 has been a long-time activist 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.

In 1995, five days after workers voted 332-50 for the UFW, VCNM, a large Watsonville strawberry company, plowed under a quarter of its operations. The company later disappeared completely.

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 The UFW argues, however, that it proves the need for employer neutrality -- without it, growers will simply plow their fields under rather than recognize the union.

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," says 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. After the 96 harvest ended, the organization changed its name, becoming the Agricultural Workers of America (AgWA). Its president Guadalupe Sanchez, described AgWA as "an organization of workers who want to be free of the UFW." A second growers' march in August of 1997, led by Guadalupe Sanchez and Jose Guadalupe Fernandez, ended with the cheer "Rancheros! Rancheros! (Bosses! Bosses!) Rah! Rah! Rah!"

George Schaaf, chief financial officer for another Watsonville strawberry distributor, Well-Pict, says that "the industry has had meetings with AgWA." The UFW sued AgWA last December for being a company union. and unearthed large checks from growers. The Western Growers Association gave AgWA $1300, which spokesperson Heather Flowers said was payment for assistance making a workers' rights video.

The UFW suit 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 has fought every UFW boycott and political initiative since then from its west LA 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 industry-wide campaign in the strawberries, the UFW and the AFL-CIO treated Watsonville as a giant "hot shop," an arena where workers were already moving toward organization. With encouragement from the union, organizers believed, workers could be convinced 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 used large, public marches and rallies -- there was little time for organizing around fights over work-related problems in the crews. Organizers focused instead on getting workers to sign union cards.

The union rapidly formed an industry-wide organizing committee, and presented a basic program of demands for wage increases, medical benefits, seniority and other major improvements. But winning the support of a big majority of the workers proved slower going than the union hoped, and its support was concentrated unevenly, making industry-wide action difficult. In addition, 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 to action. While using the Dolphin Group outside Watsonville to sway the media, in the crews growers began organizing the first company union. Workers openly supporting the UFW had to confront overtly-hostile foremen. Other violent incidents preceded that of July 1. That combination of company unions and violence was used to create an impression designed to demoralize union supporters -- that workers themselves didn't want the UFW.

In 1997, the UFW narrowed its focus from the entire industry to Coastal Berry, clearly hoping that a neutral management would give workers room to get organized. But changes at the top weren't enough. Coastal Berry foremen already had a long record of harassing and blacklisting UFW activists, and had been active participants in the AgWA marches. David Smith himself was previously CEO of a division of the Dole Farming Company, a long-time UFW opponent.

Despite the setback at Coastal Berry, "We are not walking away," the UFW's Rodriguez says. "We are committed to the long haul to ensure improvements for workers.''

The week after the vote, the joint labor committee of the California State Senate and Assembly held hearings on the ALRB's decision to allow it. "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 election. Republican Dan Lungren has already allied himself with agribusiness, as did current Governor Pete Wilson, and ex-Governor George Deukmejian. If Democratic candidate Grey 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.

The union's prospects of negotiating a contract with Gladstone seem to have soured. While the UFW has attacked his inaction in disciplining those responsible for violence, he is also being sued by the powerful Western Growers Association, who accuse him of illegally favoring the UFW. "The other growers hate me," Gladstone groused in an interview. "I don't want a union at Coastal Berry. I know how to manage my own people -- I don't need a union to tell me."

But Rodriguez says that larger issues are at stake. "If growers see that they can use violence against workers who support the union, and then have an election with the blessing of the board to legitimize a company union, they won't stop here," he warns.

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photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

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