An upstart labor union has quietly launched a campaign to organize workers at citrus packinghouses across Ventura County, a movement set to receive its first test this week at a south Oxnard packing plant.
The Democratic Union of Packinghouse Workers has petitioned to represent about 120 employees at Oxnard Lemon Co., a company that lost a costly labor lawsuit in 1993 and where union officials say most workers want representation.
The vote is scheduled for Friday.
Union supporters say they hope to achieve better wages, benefits and job security through collective bargaining.
If the organizing drive is successful, union Vice President Mario Brito said he hopes it will pave the way for unionization of more than 1,000 workers at eight citrus packinghouses from Ventura to Fillmore.
"We've been quietly organizing for the past six months and we feel this is an industry whose time has come," said Brito, noting that the drive coincides with a recent decision by the Chinese government to open its market to U.S. citrus fruit.
"Wages have remained stagnant while the industry has kept the lion's share of the profits from one trade agreement after another," he said. "We want to ensure that workers receive a fair share of what they help produce."
Packinghouse work starts at about $7.75 an hour for general labor, and goes to more than $10 an hour for skilled positions such as truck drivers.
None of the county's major citrus packinghouses is under union contract. In fact, it has been more than a decade since any union has represented local packinghouse workers, and there have been no serious unionizing efforts since.
Based on that history, citrus growers and agricultural officials say they see little chance of the organizing effort catching on industrywide--even if it is successful at Oxnard Lemon.
"We don't have a sense that the work force as a whole is unhappy with current wages and working conditions," said attorney Rob Roy, president of the Ventura County Agricultural Assn.
The trade association, which represents nearly every packinghouse in the county, holds regular reviews for plant managers on everything from changes in labor law to prevailing wages and benefits within the industry.
"We don't see any other activity of this sort at any of the other local citrus packinghouses," Roy said. "And I think a lot of that is because we try to provide a progressive environment for packinghouse workers in the county."
Oxnard Lemon Co. is no stranger to controversy.
The company, which is locally owned and a member of the Sunkist packing cooperative, is tucked into an industrial area off Oxnard Boulevard.
In 1993, the company agreed to pay $575,000 to settle a lawsuit accusing the packinghouse of discriminating against women. The lawsuit--filed two years earlier on behalf of more than 100 current, former and prospective female employees--alleged that the company engaged in discriminatory hiring practices and restricted women to lower-paid positions.
Without admitting wrongdoing, Oxnard Lemon agreed to settle the suit and maintain nondiscriminatory hiring and promotion policies that have helped several women.
But with the exception of that clash, General Manager Sam Mayhew said the company has generally maintained good relations with its workers. He said its wages and benefits are similar to those at other packinghouses. And Mayhew said Oxnard Lemon is the only packing plant he knows that offers employees a profit-sharing plan.
Mayhew said the company also regularly reviews wages and benefits to ensure they are keeping pace with industry standards.
A recent review of the medical plan, for example, revealed that insurance costs would be going up 20%, Mayhew said. Workers pay nothing for medical coverage, and Mayhew said the company decided to absorb the increase rather than pass it along to employees.
"We've been very responsive to our employees over the years, and we don't feel that they need a union to bargain for them," Mayhew said. "I'd hate to see the employees paying somebody to represent them."
In Friday's balloting, Oxnard Lemon workers will vote for the Democratic Union of Packinghouse Workers, the United Food and Commercial Workers union or no union at all.
Dues for the Democratic Union are between $18 and $20 a month, and the United Food and Commercial Workers charges about $33 monthly.
If none of those options receives more than 50% of the votes, a runoff election will take place between the top two.
Although the Democratic Union of Packinghouse Workers called for the election, the United Food and Commercial Workers union got on the ballot because of an organizing campaign conducted by Brito more than a year ago, when he worked for that organization.
Brito left the food and commercial workers last summer. But union spokesman Frank Casciato said he believes the labor organization still has plenty of support at the company.
"We believe we are the right union for those workers, because of the other packing sheds we represent throughout California," Casciato said. He noted that the union represents five packinghouses in California and has 1.4 million members in North America. "There's no labor dispute between the two unions. We're just giving workers a choice."
But Brito said he believes the only choice for workers is the Democratic Union of Packinghouse Workers, which is affiliated with the 750,000-member Laborers' International Union.
At a recent organizing meeting, Brito told workers they are trailblazers in a larger unionization movement at packinghouses across Ventura County.
Brito said the union already has 500 supporters at other packinghouses in the county. And he told workers they can gain a strong voice at the company.
"We promise we will fight with you, and everything depends on the fight we make," said Brito, 26, the son of a packinghouse worker. "I am like you. And I am here because you asked for help."
Indeed, a handful of workers launched the organizing drive at Oxnard Lemon last year after becoming increasingly concerned about pay and job security.
Oxnard resident Frances Guzman, a lemon sorter who earns $7.65 an hour after 25 years at the plant, said one of the biggest concerns was the rising number of temporary workers doing jobs previously filled by full-time employees.
She said workers also want the company to boost wages and pay the cost of extending health benefits to family members.
"Because we don't have a union, we don't have a say in what happens at the plant," said Guzman, 49, who handed out carnations last week to women employees in honor of Mother's Day and to remind them of the upcoming vote.
"The workers should have a say, they should have a fair share in what the company produces," she said. "We're the ones who do the work. We're the ones who make the money for them."
Union officials have tried to organize at Oxnard Lemon before. More than a decade ago, workers shot down efforts by the United Food and Commercial Workers to organize.
Growers and agricultural officials say union organizers have been unable to gain a foothold at local packinghouses because workers are generally paid well and treated with respect.
Santa Paula citrus grower Robert Pinkerton, who is president of the Ventura County Farm Bureau and a board member at the Saticoy Lemon Assn., said the association's four packinghouses offer a range of benefits for employees, including a scholarship program for the children of packing plant workers.
Pinkerton said he hasn't heard of any effort to organize workers at the Saticoy packing operation--the largest in Ventura County with about 500 employees.
"I think our employees are adequately compensated and listened to," Pinkerton said. "That doesn't mean we aren't always looking to make it better. When you have a happy work force, that's best for everybody concerned."
Brito said that if packinghouse managers think $8 an hour is a good wage, Friday's vote will test that theory.
"I'd like to ask them if they would be willing to work for that," he said. "I doubt they would."