Capping off a string of successful organizing efforts after years of setbacks, the once-powerful United Farm Workers of America on Friday signed its biggest labor contract in recent years--with Bear Creek Production Co., the nation's largest rose grower.
The union has won seven other, smaller contracts in the past year. But adding the 1,400 workers at Bear Creek, formerly known as Jackson & Perkins, is on the scale of the good old days of its organizing efforts. Bear Creek is based in Wasco, 25 miles north of Bakersfield.
"It's a big unit; that's a large number of workers," said Eduardo R. Blanco, acting general counsel for the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board. "Clearly (the negotiations) went very smoothly and very quickly, which has not been the way it's been in the past."
After years of bitterly fought battles with growers, 80% of the San Joaquin Valley's grape farmers had signed contracts with the union by the early 1970s. But over the years since, these and many other UFW contracts have lapsed.
The contract adds a third of California's rose workers to the union rolls. At the signing in Los Angeles, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez called the moment "historic," in large part because Bear Creek "was willing to meet its workers' needs and vice versa."
The contract provides an immediate 3% wage increase, with additional wage hikes, health and pension benefits and up to nine paid holidays annually, totaling a 22% increase in compensation over its three-year duration, by the union's estimate.
Bill Williams, president and chief executive of the 127-year-old rose company, cited a "very productive relationship" with the union.
There was also a historical resonance to the signing: The union had failed to organize the company years earlier under founding President Cesar Chavez. Rodriguez succeeded his father-in-law after Chavez's death in April, 1993.
The state's most prominent farm trade group did not see the signing as a watershed event.
"I don't believe that you can draw a conclusion from this," said Carl G. Borden, associate counsel of the California Farm Bureau Federation on Friday. "To draw the conclusion that this is a harbinger of additional organizing efforts to come would be misplaced."
But Don Villarejo, director of the California Institute for Rural Studies, a nonprofit group based in Davis, saw far-reaching implications in both the Bear Production contract itself and the new UFW flexibility he said it represents.
"It's extremely important," Villarejo said, not least because of " . . . the willingness of the UFW to be flexible and if necessary to compromise in recognition of the difficulty that the agricultural sector as a whole has in California."
In previous elections, appeals by growers or the union to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board have been routine--no matter which side won. But after the union prevailed in a Dec. 16 election, 648 to 433, Bear Creek decided to negotiate a contract without appealing.
In recent years, UFW organizers had concentrated on their long-standing table-grape boycott as well as protests aimed at curbing the use of toxic pesticides in the fields. Last April, union supporters made a 330-mile trek from Southern California to Sacramento to announce the revived organizing effort in the fields.
Since then, the union has won eight straight elections which, if followed by contracts, will add workers in crops that include dates, strawberries, tree fruit, nuts, wine grapes and mushrooms.
Rodriguez said Friday that the union had negotiated 22 other contracts as well since May, 1994, and that bargaining is continuing over an additional 31.