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A Report From the Front Lines in the Battle Over Farm Labor

The flies are everywhere, and despite the waning light, the heat in this dusty farmland hamlet can leave you breathless.

Fritz Conle is not breathless. Tirelessly, in patient, accented Spanish, he stands for six hours explaining to Latino produce packers their right to unionize, the need to sign cards, to vote, to enlist their co-workers and ultimately to make Local 78B of the United Food and Commercial Workers their representative.

His audience, which ebbs and flows as the hot afternoon melts into evening, listens gravely, alert despite a hard day processing the region’s bounty at a local freezer plant.

If Fritz Conle is not the most tenacious man in California, he’s surely close. Conle has been organizing agricultural workers throughout the San Joaquin Valley and Ventura County since 1973.

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His last Ford Escort took him 220,000 miles in four years, almost all at his own expense. He learned Spanish taking depositions for the United Farm Workers. He’d ask a question in English, hear it translated into Spanish, hear the answer in Spanish, and hear it again in English. His wife is an orange-packer from Mexico.

During all those years, California agricultural unions have only grown weaker. It’s not Conle’s fault, but if you talk to him you can see why.

When I met him, Conle hadn’t been paid in a year and a half. When strapped Local 78B laid him off--union organizers aren’t unionized--he just kept right on organizing, living on wages from occasional work as a Point Hueneme longshoreman.

“He’s on a mission,” says Lee N. Pliscou, an attorney with California Rural Legal Assistance in Oxnard.

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Last week, Conle got a break: He went back on the union payroll. “I really enjoy it when I’m paid,” he says, laughing behind a dark beard and thick glasses.

Conle, 38, specializes in organizing packing houses, which is a little like making a sculpture out of applesauce. Conle’s efforts notwithstanding, the great majority of California’s perhaps 50,000 crop-preparation workers aren’t in a union.

“I don’t think workers are very interested in what he has to offer,” says George Preonas of Seyfarth, Shaw, Fairweather & Geraldson, a leading law firm that companies hire to keep out unions.

Maybe workers aren’t interested. But as things stand, they don’t have much choice. Rural California is flooded with unskilled labor. There’s a high turnover among these workers, who often speak little English and don’t know their rights.

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Michael Lyons, president of Salinas-based Local 78B, says that when a packing house is about organized, it just folds or merges.

“It used to be, you couldn’t fire somebody for unionizing,” he says. “Now, if you lose (a union campaign), there’s a 98% chance that the committee and leaders of the organizing drive will be fired. The National Labor Relations Board doesn’t do anything.”

Organized labor’s own failings--shortsightedness, bureaucracy and bickering--haven’t helped. And since federal law allows employers to permanently replace striking workers, walkouts are virtually impossible in a low-skill field such as agriculture.

John Milat of the state Employment Development Department says California’s 450,000 agricultural workers are overwhelmingly non-union. The United Farm Workers, he says, “has gone down substantially since the 1970s.”

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So the Fritz Conles of the world use other means. They keep an eye out for safety and other violations, and they file complaints.

For example, Oxnard-based Saticoy Lemon Assn. agreed to pay $550,000 plus legal fees to settle a class-action suit alleging sex discrimination. Attorney Paul L. Strauss, who brought the suit, says packing houses routinely give women fewer hours of work, low-level jobs and no promotions.

The suit arose from an earlier Conle organizing effort--at a packer that merged with Saticoy--but the plaintiffs aren’t in Local 78B. Says Luis Magana, editor of Semilla, a Spanish-language newspaper for farm workers: “He will help workers even if they aren’t in the union.”

Magana is exactly right. In general, employers will treat workers better to prevent unionizing.

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Unions have no place in the ideal world of unfettered free enterprise, but then, pure free enterprise has no place in the real world. Organizers are fond of noting that California agriculture is a big business enjoying water at below-market prices, federal crop subsidies and a system of market orders that lets growers of some commodities form what even the Reagan Justice Department called cartels.

“It’s just another market order,” Conle says of a Local 78B contract, which brings workers $5 to $8 an hour and some benefits.

As Conle wraps up in Arvin, speaking under a metal-roofed picnic area, I talk to some of the workers who speak English. They want a union because they lack insurance and don’t feel respected.

But most of all they don’t want to be named. Without a union, they’re afraid.

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