United Farm Workers President Cesar Chavez on Sunday urged workers at Egg City near Moorpark to strike to pressure the ranch into restoring wages that were cut by as much as 30% this month.
Chavez, who made his remarks while leading about 300 workers and supporters on a march through Moorpark, said the union this week will launch a consumer boycott of the ranch's eggs.
The threatened strike and boycott are the latest in a series of conflicts at the Ventura County chicken ranch, the world's largest, that have been escalating since Egg City's contract with its workers expired in September.
Egg City filed for protection from creditors under Chapter 11 of the U.S. Bankruptcy Code on May 9. Company officials acknowledge that the move was done in part to pressure the union into accepting wage cuts.
Two weeks ago, a bankruptcy judge authorized a $2-an-hour reduction in wages for the ranch's workers, who have dwindled in number in recent months to about 230 from more than 300 because of layoffs. Workers now earn from $4.07 to $5.69 an hour. Besides the Moorpark workers, about 20 employees in San Luis Obispo County are affected.
Ranch owner Richard Carrott said after the rally that strikers will not be fired but will be replaced by substitutes and be put on a preferential hiring list for future jobs.
Chavez and other UFW officials were vague in responding to questions about when workers might strike, saying they did not want to predict what the workers might do or alert the ranch to their strategy.
Chavez said he would like workers to strike immediately. He dared Carrott to challenge the union, calling him "Richard Chicken" several times. Union official Oscar Mondragon predicted that workers will show up for work today, but he said that a strike may come as early as this week.
Sunday's march through Moorpark amounted to something of a two-hour wake-up call for the sleepy community of 16,000. UFW members began their rally about 8:15 a.m. with a 20-minute Mass said by a priest standing in the bed of a pickup truck.
Shortly before 9 a.m., a mariachi band led a line of marchers that snaked through five miles of Moorpark. Many of the town's residents watched the march from their lawns as they drank their morning coffee.
Roosevelt Wade, who has lived in Moorpark for 18 years, ran inside to fetch his video camera so he could tape the march as it passed near his 2nd Street home.
'A Quiet Town'
"This is a very quiet town," Wade said. "You don't get any excitement like this out here. You won't see this happen again for another 30 years."
The march was followed by a series of speeches at a grade school, with the rally ending about noon.
The march lacked the required parade permit from Moorpark because of a last-minute dispute with city officials over some of the conditions required to get one. Ventura County Sheriff's Lt. Mike Brown, the acting Moorpark police chief, said it is up to City Council members to decide whether to take any action against the union for violating the ordinance.
Chavez said he disclosed his boycott plans within the past few days to most of the major Southern California supermarkets that carry Egg City eggs, which he said includes such major chains as Ralphs, Lucky, Hughes and Vons. He said he has also notified the McDonald's restaurant chain, which uses Egg City eggs.
Chavez said he is asking the stores to discontinue carrying Egg City eggs, adding that union members may picket stores if they do not.
Boycotts have been Chavez's most effective weapon against growers, although farm labor experts say the union's current grape boycott, designed to pressure Gov. George Deukmejian's administration into more aggressive enforcement of California's farm labor laws, has been largely ignored in the two years since it was announced.
'Markets Won't Go to Bat'
Chavez predicted, however, that an Egg City boycott would work. "Who the hell is Egg City? The markets won't want to go to bat for it," Chavez said.
But ranch owner Carrott said he is not worried.
"We feel fairly confident that our customers are going to stay with us," he said. "It's somewhat illogical for the union to be taking a position of going on strike and launching a boycott against a company that has obvious financial problems."
Egg City attorneys have said the ranch lost $1.85 million in the six months from October to March, blaming much of the problem on labor costs that they insist have been 30% to 50% higher than the industry average. Carrott has also said that the ranch was losing about $500,000 a month when he bought it in May, 1985, from Kroger, the Cincinnati-based supermarket chain.
The union, however, disputes Egg City's claims. At the rally, UFW officials distributed copies of a letter that was written to a Thousand Oaks newspaper by Phil Gordon, the ranch's former controller. In the letter, Gordon accuses Carrott and his staff of exaggerating Egg City's past financial problems.
Dismissal Terms Disputed
Carrott said the letter may have been written out of anger by Gordon, whom Carrott said he fired in January for alleged incompetence. Gordon denied that he was fired, saying he quit because he did not like the way Carrott ran the ranch.
Union officials alleged at the rally that 27 workers were fired last Monday for refusing to work overtime and were replaced by new employees who were paid minimum wage, $3.35 an hour. One of the workers, Silvia Leos, said she was fired from her $4.07-an-hour job packing eggs after she refused to work overtime after being given 25 minutes' notice.
Egg City attorney Rob Roy acknowledged that workers were replaced because they would not work overtime but denied that any workers were actually fired because they have all been placed on a preferential rehiring list. He said that workers were given adequate notice and that some have been rehired.
All of the replacement workers make more than the minimum wage, Roy said.