David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Judge Overturns Company Union Victory in Watsonville
by David Bacon

WATSONVILLE, CA (11/23/98) -- Rejecting an extremely controversial position taken by the California's Agricultural Labor Relations Board, administrative law judge Thomas Sobel on November 5 threw out a union representation held at Watsonville's largest strawberry grower, Coastal Berry, earlier this year. In that election, the shadowy Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee received a majority of votes cast (523 votes), while 410 workers voted for no union.

In Oxnard, however, a four-hour drive south of Watsonville, 162 Coastal Berry employees were never notified the election was being held, and therefore didn't participate in the balloting. Their votes could have changed the election results, judge Sobel ruled.

Coastal Berry, formerly Gargiulo Corp., has been a major target of the industry-wide effort by the United Farm Workers of America to organize Watsonville's strawberry workers, now in its third year. The company, which originally belonged to agrochemical giant Monsanto Corp., was bought in the spring of 1997 by two investors, Landon Butler and David Gladstone, who pledged to rehire blacklisted UFW supporters and to cease the company's all-out effort to stop the union drive.

Butler later withdrew as an owner. Gladstone issued a series of statements assuring workers of the company's neutrality, but Coastal Berry foremen continued to harass UFW supporters and campaign against the union. Many of them participated in efforts by other Watsonville growers to organize a company union, Agricultural Workers of America (AgWA), including marches through town organized by anti-union consultants.

After this year's harvest began in May, foremen and anti-UFW workers organized a series of work stoppages at Coastal Berry, intended to pressure the company into abandoning its neutral stance. On July 1, during one of those stoppages, a crew of UFW supporters working in a strawberry field was assaulted.

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, a UFW activist, was hit in the head, knocked to the ground, and kicked repeatedly. A wife of another Lobato brother 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 OK, I sent them." Lobato, the suit alleges, told Vargas "you got what you deserved ... 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. According to Vargas, "these people are putting pressure on David Smith. They don't want union organizers to have access to us, and they don't want the company to sign a UFW contract."

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 were never pressed against Fernandez.

UFW President Arturo Rodriguez and Secretary Treasurer Dolores Huerta led a march the following day against the violence, and demanded that Coastal Berry discipline the foremen and workers responsible. The company took no action.

Following the incident, Fernandez, a Coastal Berry worker with a history of participation in the company union activities, showed up at the Salinas office of the ALRB. With the assistance of a board agent, he drew up a representation petition on behalf of a previously-unknown organization, the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee. Workers subsequently testified that Coastal Berry foremen then stopped crews in the fields, and urged workers to sign the petition.

The UFW objected that the committee was a company union, and that it was not possible to hold an election in the atmosphere of violence and intimidation which plagued the company. Nevertheless, the ALRB chose to ignore those objections, and went forward with the election.

In hearings on the board's actions held later in Sacramento by the legislature's combined labor committees, State Senator Hilda Solis accused the ALRB of being dysfunctional. "It's clearly in collusion with the growers," she said. The capital seethed with speculation that the board was doing the bidding of Governor Pete Wilson, who received more campaign contributions from California agribusiness than from any other industry.

In an October 16 hearing, judge Sobel took testimony on the issues involve. But in issuing his decision, he chose to overturn the election on the most narrow and technical grounds possible -- the exclusion of the workers in Oxnard. By doing so, he avoided having to make a decision on the legitimacy of the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee, or on responsibility for the campaign of violence directed at UFW supporters. It seemed hardly coincidental, however, that the decision came just 3 days after Wilson's chosen successor, Attorney General Dan Lundgren, was defeated in his bid to become governor by Democrat Grey Davis.

A lawyer for Fernandez says Judge Sobel's ruling will be appealed. Meanwhile, the UFW has filed charges with the ALRB over the violence and intimidation at Coastal Berry, as well as a suit against growers for their sponsorship of the company union. Last spring, the union discovered checks for hundreds of dollars written by several growers to AgWA.

This year's strawberry season ended in late September, and harvesting will not resume in Watsonville until April or May. During the winter, the UFW is organizing an effort to visit those workers at home who will return to the strawberry fields next year, in preparation for another year of campaigning.

Coastal Berry will undoubtedly again be the focus of the union's intense efforts to organize the industry.

Top of Page


photographs and stories by David Bacon © 1990-1999

website by DigIt Designs © 1999