Firm Accused of Illegally Firing Berry Pickers

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reigniting a battle over unionization of the nation's largest strawberry grower, attorneys for a right-to-work group Thursday accused an Oxnard company of illegally firing 150 fruit pickers because they refused to join the United Farm Workers union.

In charges filed with the state's farm labor board, the National Right to Work Foundation alleges Coastal Berry Co., at the behest of the UFW, wrongfully insisted upon union membership as a condition of employment for its workers earlier this year.

The Oxnard berry farm had been at the center of a heated UFW organizing campaign, which ended in May 2000 when the union won the right to represent more than 700 Coastal Berry workers in Ventura County.

But Stefan Gleason, vice president for the Virginia-based nonprofit foundation, said many of the Oxnard pickers did not want union representation and were never informed of their rights, as outlined in U.S. Supreme Court decisions, to object to paying full union dues.

Foundation attorneys filed the unfair labor practice charges against Coastal Berry and the UFW. They seek to force the company to rehire the workers with back pay and force the UFW to post notices informing pickers of their right to reject both full membership and payment of discounted dues.

"In a cold-hearted act of retribution, UFW union officials and Coastal Berry put 150 workers out on the street," Gleason said.

Officials with Coastal Berry and the UFW deny any wrongdoing.

Coastal Berry President Ernie Farley said the company acted within the law, and in keeping with a collective bargaining agreement reached with the UFW, when it insisted upon union membership for its Oxnard workers.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said the National Right to Work Foundation is mistakenly relying on federal precedent, not California law, in seeking to exempt workers from full union membership.

The Agricultural Labor Relations Act, adopted by the state Legislature in 1975, explicitly provides for full union membership as a condition of employment, he said.

"The UFW has complied meticulously with California farm labor law," Grossman said. "This is how it works at every company that has a [UFW] union contract."

The legal fight is the latest round in a long and bitter UFW campaign to unionize strawberry workers.

The union waged a costly four-year campaign to win a contract at Coastal Berry as a crucial first step toward organizing California's 20,000 strawberry workers.

After several rounds of balloting at the company's farms in Oxnard and Watsonville, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board last year decided to allow the UFW to represent workers in Oxnard. It also permitted a rival union, Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee, to represent workers in Northern California.

The company in March entered into a collective bargaining agreement with the UFW for the Oxnard workers. Those workers were then told they would have to join the union and pay 2% of their wages for dues.

Several of those who were dismissed for not joining the union contacted the National Right to Work Foundation.

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