Statewide Union Effort Focusing on Oxnard

TIMES STAFF WRITER

A three-year battle to unionize California's strawberry industry is shifting to Oxnard, where field hands will help determine which union, if any, represents workers at the nation's largest strawberry grower.

Labor experts say the Oxnard operation of Coastal Berry Co. is pivotal to a United Farm Workers Union campaign to gain a foothold in the state's tough-to-organize strawberry industry. The UFW is also said to be hoping to rebuild its clout in the farm industry as a whole at Coastal, which employs 2,000 workers at peak season in Oxnard and the Watsonville area.

"Obviously, the stakes are very, very high," said Rob Roy, an attorney for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn. "The UFW has got to hit a home run here real soon, or it's going to be in serious trouble."

So far, however, the UFW has been frustrated by a committee formed by Coastal Berry workers, which won the right to represent the company's farmhands in a July election that was marred by violence and allegations of voter intimidation. An angry UFW charged that the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee was a sham union put together by large agricultural interests to thwart the UFW.

Committee representatives responded that they organized themselves only because they grew tired of the union's heavy-handed tactics.

Until recently, the battle was largely centered in Central California. But it took a new turn earlier this month when a labor judge invalidated the election because the company failed to notify 162 of its workers in Oxnard that they could cast ballots.

Now, the focus of the bitter labor battle is moving south to Ventura County.

"Quite honestly, what's going to happen is that the UFW is going to start down here in Oxnard attempting to convince employees [to join], and the committee is going to surface very closely behind," said Coastal Berry President David Smith, in Oxnard last week preparing for the coming harvest. "My hope is that it all goes away, but I've found that hoping is not a very strong management skill."

With unprecedented backing from the AFL-CIO, the UFW is in the midst of a historic campaign to unionize the more than 20,000 pickers in a $600-million-a-year industry known for its low wages, poor benefits and stoop labor.

Following the 1993 death of union founder and President Cesar Chavez, UFW officials launched the effort as part of a strategy to reverse more than a decade of declining membership and dwindling influence.

At the heart of the campaign is Coastal Berry, which farms about 1,500 acres of strawberries, raspberries and blackberries--and oversees production on an additional 600 acres--in Monterey, Santa Cruz and Ventura counties.

The organizing campaign has been a divisive one. Each side accuses the other of bending the law, if not breaking it.

The UFW says the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee only won election because mid-level foremen and supervisors threatened and intimidated workers. Absent that kind of coercion, UFW officials contend, the committee would not even have drummed up enough support for a representation vote.

The farm workers committee, on the other hand, charges that the owners of Coastal Berry are too cozy with the UFW. The committee has appealed the labor judge's decision to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, arguing that the company's owners deliberately left the Oxnard workers off a list of eligible voters in an effort to sabotage the ballot process.

In the UFW's organizing drive, some agricultural industry leaders charge, the company allowed UFW organizers unfettered access to workers and lobbied on behalf of the union when they were supposed to stay neutral.

Firm's Union Ties Seen as Too Cozy

Allegations of a close relationship between the company and the union can be traced to Coastal Berry's sale in 1997 by St. Louis-based Monsanto Co. Farm industry officials say Monsanto was encouraged to sell Coastal Berry to the new owners because of their union-friendly management philosophies. One of the owners, Landon Butler, was the White House liaison to organized labor under President Carter.

The supposed relationship was so troubling to the Western Growers Assn., a large and powerful confederation of farm owners in the Western states, that the association took the unusual step of filing suit against the company--one of its own members--and the UFW. The lawsuit alleges that Coastal Berry colluded with the UFW to allow the union to control the company.

It is the first time the growers association has ever filed suit against one of its own, said Doug Kerr, vice president and general counsel for the Irvine-based association.

"The whole thing is extraordinary," Kerr said. "Western Growers Assn. would never expect to be put in this position except for the fact that we feel Coastal Berry and the United Farm Workers are not being truthful about their relationship. They are trying to portray themselves at an arm's length distance, when in fact they are really pretty close to being one in the same."

In Watsonville, the battle peaked in July, with beatings of UFW supporters, the arrest of a committee leader, the disputed election and a one-day strike to protest the results. The state Senate Committee on Industrial Relations and the Assembly Committee on Labor and Unemployment held a joint hearing afterward on the unrest.

"That election should have never taken place in that atmosphere," said state Sen. Hilda Solis (D-El Monte), who co-chaired the hearing. She blames state regulators for failing to postpone the vote until things calmed down.

"I haven't seen those kinds of abuses in the fields in the last 10 years," she said. "If the UFW is successful here, then clearly there will be some kind of impact on the rest of the strawberry growers in California, and that's why it became so nasty and so harsh."

Indeed, while both sides continue to battle over the election and related issues, they acknowledge the high stakes of the ongoing labor dispute.

For the newly resurgent UFW, which has won 17 consecutive elections and has signed 21 new contracts since 1994, a victory at Coastal Berry would provide inroads to an industry that historically has been tough for organizers to crack. But UFW officials deny that this is a make-or-break election for the union.

"The strawberry fight is not the first evidence of a reinvigorated UFW," said Marc Grossman, a union spokesman in Sacramento.

"I'm not going to denigrate the importance of Coastal Berry, but the union is going to continue to win elections and contracts with or without them," he said. "That said, we hope to win at Coastal Berry, to have a real election at Coastal Berry and get a contract. And I think we will."

At the same time, representatives of the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee said they too plan to win the right to represent workers, either through a successful appeal of the decision to set aside the election or through a new election next season.

And once they win, representatives said, they will share their strategy with any grower that wants to turn away the UFW and let workers decide for themselves whether to organize and, if so, who should represent them.

"This group of workers had nobody to turn to other than themselves," said Salinas attorney Jim Gumberg, who represents the Coastal Berry committee.

"They banded together and they are truly David facing not one, but two Goliaths here," he said. "And we ain't going away. Once we get this one under our belt, our goal is to take this movement to other growers."

Organizers See Huge Potential

Whether such a grass-roots approach, or the larger UFW campaign, will ever take hold in Ventura County's strawberry fields remains to be seen.

However, the local harvest would be no small prize for any union, trailing only the Watsonville-Salinas area in strawberry production, with about 4,500 acres and sales of $144 million in 1997.

UFW officials recognize the area's organizing potential. Once a stronghold of support with 4,000 union members, UFW membership in Ventura County has come to reflect a statewide decline, dropping to a few hundred workers by the time of Chavez's death.

Shortly after, union officials announced a local organizing drive. To show the union was back, they staged a march from the beach in Ventura to Oxnard's La Colonia migrant district.

Months later, Chavez's son-in-law, new UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, began visiting Ventura County fields, solidifying membership and lobbying growers and packers for better contracts.

The union won an election in 1995, when most of the 600 workers at Ocean View Produce in Oxnard voted to join. But the company, a subsidiary of Dole Food Co., plowed under its strawberries and laid off 450 workers, saying it hadn't made enough money on the crop for years.

Last year, the UFW renewed its effort to organize local strawberry workers. They served 13 growers--about half the county's total--with notices required by state law for organizers to come into the fields.

Now comes Coastal Berry, where UFW officials believe they have the support of enough Oxnard laborers to beat back the farm worker committee and eventually win a contract.

In the July election to decide whether the farm workers committee--or no group--would represent the workers, the Coastal Berry Farm Workers Committee received 523 of the 933 ballots cast.

The UFW was so suspicious of the election that it did not even put its name on the ballot.

UFW officials said it's too soon to tell when they might call for a representation election of their own, but they acknowledge that Oxnard will play a key role when that happens.

"I think there's every reason to believe that the Oxnard workers would have changed the outcome of the election," the UFW's Grossman said.

"The only reason this rump union got on the ballot was by intimidating people, and that obviously had a chilling effect on the workers up on the Central Coast," Grossman said. "That intimidation was never as potent down south. And absent the intimidation and fear, the union's case is pretty easy to sell."

But Roy, the attorney with the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., said he believes the UFW has as little support locally as it found it had in July in Watsonville.

In fact, he said about a half-dozen of the Oxnard workers banded together last spring to gather the signatures of more than 100 employees on a petition opposing the union.

"They didn't want the UFW to represent them; they didn't want a UFW election. They wanted to be left alone," Roy said. The UFW's goal "all along has been to organize the workers here, and they obviously have had a very difficult time. Now they're trying to blame everyone else in the world for their inability to do that."

For now, the battlefield is calm. This is the off season, and few field hands are working.

But in Oxnard, where the season starts three months earlier than in the north, workers will start picking the delicate fruit in earnest right after Christmas. The peak season runs from February through June.

Coastal President Smith expects that, as the season gears up, the Oxnard operation will come under growing pressure from organizers on both sides.

He points out that the local operation is growing, farming 350 acres this season compared with 110 last season. And as a result, he expects to employ as many as 700 workers when the season hits its peak, compared with 220 last season.

Smith said he knows many of those workers will be ripe for the picking as the season gets underway.

"I think what people lose sight of is that it's up to the employees to decide whether they want to be represented," Smith said.

"Whether the agricultural community in general would like it to be one way, or whether the UFW would like it to be another way, all of those things become irrelevant," he said. "At the end of the day, it's the employees' decision. And whatever they decide, we're going to be willing to work with."

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