For UFW, Contracts Are Give and Take

Times Staff Writer

In a Napa vineyard where farmworkers labored under one of the first contracts negotiated by Cesar Chavez, the 1967 pact lives on.

About 20 veteran members of the United Farm Workers are pruning grapes for $10.35 an hour under a contract with Vista Vineyard Management.

Alongside them, crews of younger nonunion workers do the same job; right now they earn less, but during harvest the nonunion workers, paid by the ton rather than the hour, often make more than the UFW members.


The UFW’s landmark pact today allows the employer to run a separate nonunion company that hires five times as many workers during peak season.

“The contract was very favorable to the union,” Vista Vineyard manager Sam Turner said about the early agreement, originally with Christian Bros. Winery. “It’s taken us many contracts and negotiations to whittle that down and get the kind of language we need to be a competitive company.”

The Napa vineyard illustrates several realities about UFW contracts decades after the union’s peak: Growers have won concessions that enable them to hire nonunion employees through subcontractors. Contracts often allow employers to bypass strict seniority rules for hiring and promoting workers. And the UFW has accepted a variety of arrangements that allow employers to pay workers differently for similar labor.

“In the late 1970s, the UFW negotiated a pretty standard contract,” said Philip Martin, an agricultural economist at UC Davis who has studied the issue. “Today, there is lots of variance in contracts, which you can say reflects the union’s willingness to work with employers, or the union’s inability to push through a standard contract.”

UFW leaders have kept their contracts secret, in deference, union President Arturo Rodriguez has said, to employers who might face peer pressure. The union is supposed to file contracts reached since May 2003 with the state, but has failed to do so.

In the first comprehensive examination of UFW contracts, The Times obtained copies of union agreements with 33 California agricultural employers, ranging from a Thermal date grower with a handful of employees to a Dole strawberry operation that employs as many as 1,200 workers during harvest season. According to documents and sources familiar with the union, the California companies -- along with a Florida mushroom grower and a Washington state winery -- constitute the UFW’s current agricultural contracts.

Only the pact with Dole’s Coastal Berry strawberries in Watsonville and Oxnard covers more than 1,000 workers, for a few months during peak seasons. Half the firms employ 100 or fewer at full strength, according to interviews. In all, documents and interviews indicate there are about 7,000 California farmworkers covered under UFW contracts at the busiest times of the year.

The union’s base has migrated from bedrock crops such as table grapes and vegetables to roses and mushrooms, a small niche in the $29-billion California agriculture industry but one of the few that offers year-round employment.

The UFW has a handful of contracts in wine grapes, but none in table grapes, where the union began, and only two with small vegetable farms in the Salinas and Imperial valleys, once the union’s strongholds.

UFW spokesman Marc Grossman said in a statement that union officials would not be interviewed for this story because of unhappiness with a recent four-part series in The Times that detailed how the union had shifted focus from organizing farmworkers toward a broader Latino advocacy role.

As part of the shift, the UFW has signed contracts with nonagricultural employers; documents show that recent agreements covered parochial workers in five Texas Catholic parishes, prefab assemblers at a San Jose-based construction company, Bakersfield taxi drivers and workers at a nonprofit agency in Seattle.

An examination of the UFW’s agricultural contracts shows several patterns:

* Flexibility: Recent contracts allow employers to use labor contractors to bring in workers who are not covered by the union contract. Other agreements stipulate that seniority is only one factor to consider in deciding who gets laid off, a significant issue in an industry where seasonal layoffs and recalls are frequent. Some workers are on probation for as long as 90 days, during which they can be fired for any reason and do not have recourse to standard grievance procedures.

Last September, the UFW signed a contract with Huntington Farms in Soledad, its first pact with the company in more than a decade. The contract allows the vegetable grower to use unlimited subcontracting during harvest season and specifies those workers are not covered by the pact.

Other pacts let companies subcontract out work for short periods, such as the cherry harvest. “It’s really impractical to hire such a large number of people for such a short amount of time,” said John Warmerdam, who recently negotiated more lenient terms for bringing in subcontractors to harvest tree fruit at Excelsior Farms in Hanford.

Employers also argue that sidestepping seniority is essential to keep the best workers.

“We said if you want to have a contract, you have to observe the company culture that’s already here,” said Scott Scheid, chief executive of Scheid Vineyards. “It’s going to take language that doesn’t have strict seniority. We don’t believe in it. America was not built on the strict seniority system.”

The contract says Scheid Vineyards will lay off and recall workers based on qualifications “which include: skills, efforts, productivity, experience, work history and seniority.”

* Wages: Pay is competitive but not always higher than on nonunion farms, particularly in crops where the UFW represents a small fraction of the workers.

For example, two Napa wineries with union contracts pay more than $10 an hour, but the UFW contract signed with Gallo of Sonoma last fall pays a base wage of $8.59 an hour, less than many vineyards in the area.

Because the UFW collects 2% of all wages as dues, an initial contract with a raise of anything less translates into a pay cut for workers.

Workers voted out the UFW at two vineyards in recent years after wage proposals did not outweigh dues.

* Benefits: UFW officials have stressed that contracts generally provide some paid holidays, vacation, insurance and pension credit.

Two-thirds of the contracts require employers to pay an hourly fee per employee into the UFW-affiliated Robert F. Kennedy health insurance plan. Employers pay whether or not workers sign up for the plan.

In one recent case, workers at Gallo of Sonoma were not using RFK, and the accord reached last fall provided insurance for employees under the company’s health plan instead.

There were 15 different options under RFK last year, depending on how much the company paid; deductibles, for example, ranged from zero to $150 per family member.

Several employers said the RFK plan was a key issue for the UFW during negotiations.

“They were die-on-the-sword on that one,” Scheid said.

* Multiple tiers: The trend has been toward arrangements that compensate differently for the same work. A recent contract with St. Supery winery has three levels of health benefits -- workers hired after Jan. 1, 2002, do not have dental or vision coverage -- a proposal the winery said was the union’s idea. Some contracts have lower entry wages for new employees.

In other contracts, seasonal workers don’t meet thresholds for vacation and holidays.

Some longtime adversaries praise UFW leaders for making realistic choices.

Rob Carrol, a lawyer who has been negotiating on behalf of agricultural employers for almost 30 years, credits UFW President Rodriguez for taking a “more businesslike approach to getting contracts done in a way that certainly benefits the workers but also helps fit into a very competitive model that a lot of employers find themselves in.”

A supporter of the union also praises its recent pragmatic approach.

“What it shows is something quite important: the willingness of the union to deal with reality,” said Don Villarejo, a consultant who has studied California’s agricultural industry for many years. But Villarejo acknowledges that the acceptance of subcontractors is at odds with the union’s long-standing commitment to eliminate such middlemen.

Others go further, saying the UFW has ceded crucial rights in an effort to maintain its dues income -- the $2 million from dues is about one-third of the union’s budget -- and to protect affiliated health and pension plans.

They argue that allowing employers to lay off and recall workers in seasonal jobs on the basis of productivity and performance rather than seniority, for example, may help obtain contracts but hurts the union and workers it represents.

“Those are very dangerous situations,” said Pete Maturino, head of the Salinas-based local of the United Food and Commercial Workers, which also represents agricultural workers. “A guy’s been out there 15 years and instead of rewarding the guy, now you say the criteria for recalling will not be because he’s been there for 15 years but how fast he works. It demoralizes the hell out of your membership. Why even have a seniority system?”

Maturino said contracts with weak seniority protection and leeway to bring in nonunion subcontractors can make workers elsewhere wary: “It makes it that much more difficult to go out and organize the industry.”

UFW leaders themselves have acknowledged problems. In a ruling in October, for example, an administrative law judge recounted testimony from UFW Vice President Efren Barajas about negotiations a few years earlier:

“Barajas admitted that the union has negotiated two contracts allowing unlimited subcontracting, and excluding subcontractor employees from the bargaining unit and contract coverage. He further testified regretting this, because one of the employers subsequently subcontracted out the entire bargaining unit.”


UFW farm pacts

The United Farm Workers has contracts with these 33 California agricultural employers.


* Bear Creek, Wasco

* CP Meilland, Wasco and Shafter


* L.E. Cooke, Visalia


* Monterey Mushrooms, Morgan Hill and Watsonville

* California Mushroom Farms (formerly Pictsweet), Oxnard

* Countryside Mushrooms, Gilroy

* Ariel Mushrooms, Watsonville


* Hibino Farms, Salinas

* Huntington Farms, Soledad

* Muranaka, Moorpark


* Coastal Berry, Oxnard and Watsonville

* Swanton Berry, Central Coast


* Elwin R. Mann, Watsonville

* John Lukrich, Watsonville

Tree fruit

* Excelsior, Hanford

Wine grapes

* Charles Krug, St. Helena

* Scheid Vineyards, Monterey County and Hollister

* St. Supery, Rutherford

* Gallo of Sonoma, Healdsburg

* Balletto Ranch, Sonoma

* Vista Vineyard Management, Napa

* General Vineyard Management, Monterey

* J&L; Farms, Monterey

* Saralee Vineyard, Mendocino


* Sunworld, Coachella and Blythe

* Coachella Valley Citrus, Thermal

* Airdrome, Visalia

* Baird-Neece, Porterville

* DRM Grove Labor, Palm Desert


* HMS Agricultural Corp., Indio and Coachella

* S&J;, Madera

* Brown Date Garden, Thermal

* Montpelier Orchards Management, Modesto

Source: Times reporting

Los Angeles Times