The workers were eating pigskin soup under the vines when Lupe Martinez came calling at noon sharp, a bullhorn in one hand and a stack of union cards in the other.
“Come. Come, fellow farmworkers,” his voice shot out. “We need to have unity. We need to fight.”
The migrants, knees caked in dirt and grape juice, might have laughed at the union man coming to challenge their boss, the self-proclaimed “Grape King.”
With his cowboy boots, Martinez stood 5 feet tall and weighed 200 pounds. He didn’t walk so much as he rolled straight at them. And what he was here to pitch was a movement whose glory days were far behind it, a United Farm Workers union that hadn’t delivered a major victory in these grape fields for 35 years.
Every morning for the last month, union organizers from Los Angeles, Watsonville and small valley towns have headed to the fields of the southern San Joaquin Valley. They have gotten more than 2,000 workers at Giumarra Vineyards to sign union cards.
It’s enough to qualify for an election Thursday to decide whether the union, after a three-decade absence, will once again represent workers at Giumarra -- one of the giants of California agriculture.
On the far east side of Bakersfield, 30 miles away, John Giumarra Jr. brushed off the UFW as a paper tiger. He said his company didn’t need the union to meddle in its business. “Where have they been for 35 years?” he asked derisively. “Farmworkers don’t buy into their promises anymore.”
But Martinez, a lead organizer for the UFW and onetime tractor driver who likes to recall how he was plucked out of the fields in 1982 by Cesar Chavez, believes this summer is different.
As he made his way past the crew boss -- a lady dressed head to toe in purple -- he said he could smell the anger in the air. He raised the bullhorn to his lips.
“Are you ready? Are you ready to organize against Giumarra?”
Union leaders say a number of factors have come together to make this an election they can win. The pickers and packers -- men, women and children -- are working under a San Joaquin Valley sun that has killed five of their fellow campesinos over the last year. Two of those heatstroke deaths have taken place in Kern County fields belonging to Giumarra.
The deaths have turned resentment into anger for many workers. Meanwhile, a labor shortage in the fields has made them less fearful of being fired for union activity.
Maybe it’s not the same union that in the summer of 1970 made the late John Giumarra Sr. raise his hands in mock surrender as he signed the UFW contract, ending the five-year grape strike in Delano. That contract expired just three years later.
This is a UFW with four bullhorns, a copy machine that keeps going on the fritz and a staff of 16 full-time organizers, half of them young and green. They are taking on no mere farmer but one of the biggest table grape growers and packers in the world.
How to persuade 3,000 workers to risk embracing a union whose myth overshadows its reality?
One by one, as the union bullhorn crackled, workers put down half-eaten lunches and surrounded Martinez on the rutted road that divided the vineyard in half.
“If you don’t sign these cards, we cannot represent you,” Martinez implored. “Do you want better wages? Do you want us to tell Giumarra to stop making you pack on your knees?”
Many nodded their heads yes.
Even some longtime UFW supporters wonder whether the whole thing is a publicity stunt. They find the timing a bit too symbolic. This summer is the 40th anniversary of the grape strike, and the union is planning a big reunion in Delano with many of the old-timers. At a time when the national labor movement is divided, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez would love nothing more than a victory to prove his union’s grit.
The UFW, for all its iconic value, represents a tiny fraction of the migrants who land in this valley each June to begin a three-month harvest in triple-digit heat. Since its heyday in the early 1970s, the union has won many elections that never led to contracts.
“I’m delighted they’re going after Giumarra, and I wish them well,” said Don Villarejo, a farm labor policy expert and union supporter. “But they’ve got to be persistent and stay committed. It’s not enough to win an election. They need to bring home a contract.”
Union leaders insist they are taking direction not from PR men but from the workers.
“We’re not above fooling ourselves,” said Tanis Ybarra, the UFW’s secretary-treasurer. “But it’s the workers who are telling us that if there was ever a chance to bring changes, this is the year.”
And, they say, there is a particular anger when it comes to Giumarra Vineyards, long considered the industry’s gold standard because of its high-quality grapes and picture-perfect presentation in the box.
Even after two workers’ deaths from heat -- Asuncion Valdivia last summer and Augustine Gudino this July -- interviews in the Giumarra fields show that pickers are still lugging grapes on their shoulders. Other growers provide wheelbarrows to move the fruit up and down the rows.
Also, most growers provide tables and umbrellas so their packers can stand while filling two boxes at a time. At Giumarra, grapes are packed into four boxes according to size. Because the tables are too small for such a task, the boxes are spread on the ground, and the packers dig in their knees.
Last week, Rodriguez confronted 63-year-old John Giumarra in a company parking lot about those working conditions. Giumarra, the company’s vice president, said the practices were efficient and not meant to be cruel. “Many of the workers prefer the way we pack as opposed to standing all day long,” he said. “Certainly it’s not something that can be changed overnight.”
At the union’s Forty Acres compound, in a war room that looked like a bookie’s parlor, Lupe Martinez was hoping that anger over working conditions could help him find a way back to the UFW’s storied past.
He grabbed a black felt tip pen and scribbled notes and numbers on giant pieces of butcher paper that he taped to the walls. The numbers charted the mood of Giumarra’s 40 harvesting crews -- the workers who had signed union cards and those who had stepped forward as union reps.
He knew the union would need to win a majority Thursday. But what was a majority? Many union elections become a mess of litigation because the union and the company cannot agree on who is eligible to vote.
“In the past, Giumarra has had as many as 4,000 workers. But the numbers are way down this year. It could be less than 3,000. We just don’t know,” Martinez said.
He and Ybarra were pushing the organizers to get 75% of the harvesting force to sign cards. But they knew from past experience that the cards were only an early and soft sign of support. At least 20% of workers now backing the union would be lost in the fray.
“We tried to run an election at Kenneth Kovacevich farms in 2003,” Martinez said. “We went in there with 75% of the workers signing cards and got our butts handed to us. Workers retreated. They scared the living daylights out of them.”
Since last week, when the union formally filed for an election, Giumarra has been fighting back. The company has hired a Los Angeles law firm known for its anti-union strategies. In fliers distributed to workers, the company portrays the UFW as a vulture swooping down to take 2% of workers’ salary in dues and offering nothing in return. The union will use their dues money to push a liberal political agenda, including support for gay marriage, company officials have warned the culturally conservative Mexican workforce.
To carry the union’s end of the fight, Martinez and Ybarra are relying on organizers with more enthusiasm than experience.
“Some of these organizers are green. And when I say green, I mean totally green,” says Ybarra, a big man with an easy laugh. “We’re giving them a class. Organizing 101. By the seat of the pants and the grace of God.”
As those organizers gather at the compound, Martinez and Ybarra circle a long table, asking each to describe what took place the previous night in the labor camps and during their 6 a.m. rounds in the fields.
Diana Tellefson, a 29-year-old Stanford graduate who used to teach first grade in east Palo Alto, is the first to debrief.
“The workers I met with last night are very angry. They’re getting written up if they have one bad grape in the box,” she says.
The grapes are dirtier this year because of mildew, requiring a lot of hand-clipping to make a good bunch. But Giumarra is still setting a quota of one box every 15 minutes for each picker and packer, she says.
“One worker was told that he had to sit out his shift. All because he let a few bad grapes in his box.”
She finishes her report, and the whole room breaks out in the union’s traditional clap -- slow, then faster and faster.
On it goes for the next hour: reports of more cards signed, more workers volunteering to be union reps, more allegations of bad deeds by the Giumarras. Whether some of the accounts are unreliable -- they do come second- and third-hand -- doesn’t seem to matter. Each story energizes the organizers. The rhythmic claps grow louder.
And then it is Erika Oropeza’s turn.
She had picked grapes in Delano just the year before, and this is her first election campaign. But the 20-year-old with tight jeans, pointy cowboy boots and UFW Aztec Eagle earrings already has stared down several crew bosses, collecting nearly 100 signed cards in all.
Earlier that morning, she sought out the forewoman of a crew loyal to Giumarra, intending to use the union’s full 30 minutes of legally guaranteed access time to set the record straight.
“She had told the workers that ‘the union is not coming back because all their organizers are women. They’re afraid. They’re corrupt. They just want your money.’ ”
Oropeza says she got in the forewoman’s face and taunted her. “I’m back. And the corrupt people are you. No tables. No umbrellas. No wheelbarrows. People working on their knees.”
The workers began to chant. “Viva Cesar Chavez! Si Se Puede!” -- yes, it can be done. The forewoman told her to leave, but Oropeza looked at her watch in defiance. “I’ve got 10 more minutes.”
Martinez beams as he leads the clap. “Good job, Erika. You stripped the forelady of her power right there.”
The room clears at 10:45 a.m., and the organizers -- two to a team -- head for the various Giumarra vineyards that sprawl across Kern County. Martinez climbs into his white 1999 Ford Taurus with Roman Pinal, one of the union’s young organizers, and speeds off to a field in north Bakersfield.
The Giumarra empire takes in nearly 10,000 acres -- a farming and fruit-marketing operation that stretches from Fresno to Escondido. The Giumarras say it is family through and through. The company is run by 20 relatives led by patriarch and President Salvadore Giumarra, who in his late 70s still works in the vineyards each day, getting down on his hands and knees to show employees the Giumarra school of picking and packing.
Shortly before noon, Martinez pulls up to the vineyard and waits for the workers to break for lunch. Then he and Pinal march past the crew boss in her purple sunglasses and scarves.
It is 102 degrees, and the only things moving are the black dragonflies. About 70 to 80 workers sit hidden under the half-shade of vines, eating runny beans and drinking sodas. Rousing them from their slumber to stand under the full sun isn’t easy.
“We’re having a rally so people can stand up for their rights,” Martinez tells them. “Come on out.”
About half do.
“I’m not here because I have some big education or I read about your struggles in a book,” Martinez tells them. “I, too, was a farmworker. I’ve been in these fields.”
He sticks to the script and keeps it simple: Five workers have died this summer to make the growers rich. No grower cares more about the bottom line and less about the workers than Giumarra. If you’re ready to make a change, we will fight beside you. It can be done.
Whether they came from Durango or Michoacan or Guanajuato or Sinaloa, field workers for Giumarra say they crossed the border illegally. The company did not question their status. Rather, when it came time to show their documents, they turned in nothing or offered a fake Social Security number and green card.
Nearly every one relates the same experience of working their first week as trainees and not getting paid -- an allegation Giumarra disputes.
“Necessity makes you swallow certain things,” explains Maria Cervantes, a picker who says she never complained about the wages owed to her.
They have worked for Giumarra six, eight and 10 years and are still making close to minimum wage plus a dime’s bonus for each box -- $8 an hour.
Whether the grapes are Flames or Thompson, the conditions don’t vary, they say. They make shade out of cardboard boxes or buy cheap umbrellas from Wal-Mart. To protect their knees, they kneel on pillows or sit on homemade wooden stools the size of shoeboxes.
“If you sit on a stool and pack, your back aches,” says Kristina Negrete, a 54-year-old field hand. “If you work on your knees, they ache five months after the harvest.”
Pinal moves from worker to worker hustling cards. “Have you signed? Have you signed?”
Then a big man with a handsome face and a red bandanna around his neck steps forward.
Aguileo Rangel says he began this harvest -- his eighth as a Giumarra picker -- without complaint. Each night, he came back to the labor camp near the tiny town of Lamont -- to the 14-foot-by-14-foot room he shared with his wife and three children -- and played the guitar. His 16-year-old son, David, who has worked for Giumarra since he was 13, played the keyboard.
But 10 days earlier, in the 104-degree heat, David collapsed in the field after a grueling morning pick. A company supervisor took him to a nearby clinic, where ice bags were put under his arms. That evening, after the supervisor brought him home, he began to vomit and shake. He was rushed to a Bakersfield hospital and diagnosed with heat stress and West Nile virus.
“I heard about the heat deaths on the radio, but they weren’t real to me,” he says. “Not until this happened to my son.”
The boy feels better, but the father is still angry. He snaps his fingers rapid-fire. “No matter how hot it is, they make us work this fast. A man like me can take it. I pick 40 boxes a day by myself. But the older and younger ones need to be treated more humanely.”
As a family, he, his wife and son earn $175 a day during the peak harvest. Room and board come to $850 a month. Because the Giumarra fields are so far-flung, the cost of gas eats up an ever bigger chunk. They labor six days a week to save a few hundred dollars.
He takes the UFW button and pins it to his shirt. “Americans don’t see the fields. They don’t know what goes on here,” he says. “It’s a world within a world.”