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Dispute Over Size of UFW Is Reopened

TIMES STAFF WRITER

Reigniting a debate over the clout of the United Farm Workers union, a farm industry attorney is accusing the UFW of overstating its membership in an effort to bolster the union’s reputation and help win converts in the fields.

Rob Roy, general counsel for the Ventura County Agricultural Assn., has long accused the union of inflating its numbers, but he now believes he has proof in the form of an amended federal document in which the UFW lowers its membership estimates by nearly 80%.

From 1995 to 1999, the UFW claimed membership of 26,000 on reports filed annually with the U.S. Department of Labor. The union upped that figure to 27,000 in 2000. But last month, in response to an inquiry by the Labor Department, the union revised its membership to 5,945, according to the amended report.

“Here they are portraying themselves as the voice of California farm workers, and yet they represent less than 1%,” said Roy, who fired off a letter in February prompting the Labor Department probe.

However, union officials say the lower number represents only those laborers working under UFW contract at the end of the year, and not the total number of members who work under contract on a seasonal basis at least one day during the year.

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UFW President Arturo Rodriguez said labor officials directed the union to use the year-end number, even though they were told it reflected only a fraction of those on the union’s membership rolls. A Labor Department official in Los Angeles confirmed that the UFW, like all other labor organizations, was instructed to report only those members working at year’s end and acknowledged that seasonal employment could cause that number to fluctuate.

For the UFW, Rodriguez said the year-end number is particularly misleading because it only counts union members working under contract on Dec. 31, a traditionally slow time in agriculture.

Despite Roy’s contention that the amended number is close to accurate, Rodriguez maintains that the number of rank-and-file, dues-paying members stands at 27,000, a total boosted in recent years by an organizing drive that has put thousands of laborers--from Washington state to Florida--to work under the UFW’s black-and-red Aztec eagle banner.

“The union is anything but dying at this point,” said Rodriguez, who became UFW president after the death of founder Cesar Chavez in 1993.

“I don’t think there are too many labor unions having the number of elections we are and gaining new membership like we are,” he added. “People like Rob Roy have been trying to destroy our reputation ever since we started. We are honestly out there representing workers and the communities they live in.”

Growers for years have challenged the validity of the UFW’s membership claims, a spinoff of the bitter and often brutal battles that have marked the union’s struggle for better wages and working conditions for America’s poorest working class.

Critics say the union’s strength and influence in the fields have waned over the years, yet UFW officials continue to lean on Chavez’s legacy, often as a way of drawing donations from independent benefactors.

Union dues totaled $1.8 million in 2000. Citizen contributions totaled nearly twice that.

James Bogart, president of the 300-member Grower Shipper Assn. of Central California in Salinas, said the disparity between dues and contributions lends credence to his view that the union has become more of a social and political movement than a traditional labor organization.

“I don’t see any harm in [the union’s concentration on social and political work], but they shouldn’t go around holding themselves up as a labor organization if their focus is elsewhere,” he said.

Bogart joined Roy in 1998 in conducting a survey of UFW membership in California. Roy said the survey, conducted as part of his work as chairman of the American Bar Assn.'s subcommittee on state agricultural developments, was sent to companies with known UFW contracts. It showed that the union had 32 contracts covering about 7,000 workers in California at the end of 1998.

Adjusting for out-of-state contracts and recent election victories, Roy now estimates UFW membership to be, at most, 8,000 workers.

Roy said he also tackled the membership question from a different angle. He took the total dues collected by the UFW, $1.8 million in 2000 as reported to the Labor Department, and divided by the total number of dues-paying members reported by the union, 27,000. Because workers pay 2% of their gross salaries to the union in dues, Roy said UFW members would earn on average of only about $3,000 a year, a figure that is low even for traditionally low-paid farm work.

Roy disputes a host of other UFW contentions, including claims that it has added 7,000 members since 1994. His research shows that in California, the UFW has won 16 elections between 1994 and 2000, earning the right to represent 4,094 workers. However, not all of those resulted in contracts with employers.

“In my opinion, much about the UFW is smoke and mirrors,” Roy said.

Calling Roy’s analysis flawed and his information incomplete, UFW leaders say the union has made great strides since 1994, when Rodriguez, as new UFW president, pledged to rebuild the struggling organization by returning to field organizing.

Once a formidable national presence, with upward of 80,000 members at its peak in 1973, the union had suffered decades of declining membership and was barely at 20,000 members when Chavez died 20 years later.

Since that time, UFW leaders say the union has won 21 elections, including votes at the Chateau St. Michelle Winery in Washington and at Quincy Farms in Florida, that state’s top producer of fresh mushrooms.

The union also has picked up its organizing work across California, producing historic victories at Gallo of Sonoma and at the Coastal Berry Co. in Oxnard, where more than 750 pickers are covered by a landmark contract that gives the UFW its first major stake in the state’s tough-to-organize strawberry industry.

UFW leaders say they have negotiated 25 new contracts, some stemming from earlier election victories, encompassing about 7,000 workers since the launch of the organizing drive. That assertion is supported by the fact that the union is now collecting more than twice the amount of dues it was collecting eight years ago, leaders say.

But they say the numbers only tell half the story because the union’s influence extends well beyond the fields.

It has been felt at the state Capitol, where legislators have passed UFW-backed measures to improve worker safety and to make sure laborers are not cheated out of wages. And it’s being felt in farm towns across the state, where UFW-supported candidates are being elected to local, state and national offices.

Both supporters and critics of the UFW acknowledge that in many ways it is far more difficult now to organize the farm labor force than it was at the peak of the union’s popularity.

One reason, experts say, is that the farm labor force, once dominated by immigrants from northern and central Mexico, now contains a significant share of peasants from regions to the south, many of whom arrive here illegally. By some estimates, at least half and as much as 70% of the labor force is undocumented, making it a particularly hard group to organize.

Growers contend that the union has become less necessary as agricultural employers have conformed with a flurry of federal and state laws added over the years to protect field laborers.

The UFW says its organizing efforts have been hampered by institutional impediments, including years of unfavorable rulings by a Republican-controlled Agricultural Labor Relations Board.

But UFW leaders say one of the main reasons the union’s membership numbers aren’t higher is that organizers have had a tough time hammering out contracts with growers, even after workers have voted for UFW representation. Of the 428 companies in which farm workers have voted for the UFW since 1975, only 185 have signed union contracts.

UFW officials say there are thousands of workers awaiting union representation, including more than 300 at Pictsweet Mushroom Farm in Ventura. Those workers have been without a contract since 1987, when the farm was taken over by Tennessee-based United Foods Inc.

Barbara Macri-Ortiz, an Oxnard attorney representing the UFW in those negotiations, said legislative efforts are underway to allow for binding third-party arbitration of agricultural labor contract negotiations that have reached an impasse.

“We’ve got all of these certifications that have not translated into contracts, and I think it’s time for the balance of power to shift,” Macri-Ortiz said. “We’ve got plenty of supporters just waiting for the opportunity to become members.”


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