Unprecedented Farm Contract Ready for Vote : Labor: Moorpark's Muranaka field hands will consider an accord to give them greater say in management decisions.


An unprecedented farm labor contract that would give field workers a say in management decisions faces a vote from workers tonight at Moorpark's Muranaka Farms, said Mario Brito, the regional director for the United Farm Workers.

The union hopes to use the agreement as a model for future farm labor contracts, Brito said.

The contract, endorsed by both sides on Wednesday after four months of negotiations, still requires the approval of Muranaka's 150 rank-and-file field hands and packinghouse workers. If approved, the agreement would set up a cooperative management team consisting of workers and company officials who would meet every six weeks to work on cost-saving labor practices and farm production efficiency. The workers will be encouraged to make suggestions without the risk of reprisal from company officials.

The agreement, modeled after similar pacts between factory workers and car makers in Detroit, is not only designed to allow workers a say in company policy, but it is also meant to give them a vested interest in the success of the company.

"This is really a historic agreement for us," Brito said. "I think it will be a model for us. We've had to re-evaluate some things. (The company and the union) are always going to be adversaries, but we don't always have to be adversarial."

Company President Harry Muranaka would not comment on the new contract until it received a final ratification by the workers.

The new contract would also provide 5% to 8% raises for employees, who have worked without a contract since 1992 and have not received a pay hike since 1990. In this year's negotiations, the union also pushed for health benefits and retroactive raises, but company managers said they could not afford such proposals.

Muranaka is a medium-sized, family-owned company that farms about 450 acres of leeks, radishes, parsley, cilantro and kale in and around Moorpark. The company operates another 2,500 acres in Mexico.

Outside observers say that if the small farm's new contract holds, it will be an innovative step that could help change farm labor arrangements throughout the state. They also say it could invigorate the beleaguered union, whose membership has dropped dramatically in the past 10 years.

"The direction the new (United Farm Workers) president is taking is very positive," said Don Villarejo, executive director of the Davis-based California Institute for Rural Studies. "Growers are going to want an increasingly stable and skilled work force, and this will help guarantee that."

Villarejo said that in 1986 he had a conversation with former UFW President Cesar Chavez about "total quality management."

"I came into his office and he had all these books on Japanese team management techniques, and he ended up talking for several hours about more cooperative labor-management relations," he said. "It was really quite an eye-opener for me. He was saying the union couldn't simply make farmers enemies and the bad guys. Instead the union should be looking at how to make this industry work, and work in a way that benefits workers. It looks like that's what the new president is trying to do."

There are roughly 800,000 farm workers in California, but only about 300,000 full-time positions, according to Villarejo. The result, he said, is few year-round jobs for workers, who end up earning an average of just $5,000 to $7,000 a year.

Workers at Muranaka work year-round and have been paid from $12,000 to $14,000 a year.

"This is a really positive step for us," the union's Brito said. "I think the company also recognizes that this sort of cooperation is in their best interest--they are guaranteeing loyal workers committed to keeping the company profitable."

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