The withering of the UFW

Miriam Pawel, a former Times reporter and California editor, is a fellow with the Alicia Patterson Foundation. She is writing a book about the United Farm Workers.

Thirty-two years after farmworkers for one of the largest vegetable growers in the Salinas Valley voted to be represented by the United Farm Workers, the union finally signed a contract with the company that markets Andy Boy lettuce and broccoli.

The deal should have been a historic moment -- a tribute to the union’s perseverance in fighting for workers’ rights and for contracts that improve wages and working conditions.

Instead, the recent agreement with D’Arrigo Bros. stands as a testament to the union’s weakness, its inability to deliver for its shrinking membership and its willingness to abandon gains enshrined in a landmark law engineered by UFW founder Cesar Chavez.

The terms of the contract hardly seem worth the decades-long battle. Some farmworkers will earn no more than the state minimum wage. Others will get minimal increases: 48 cents an hour phased in over the next three years. The company retains key management prerogatives, including the right to decide when skills override seniority in determining layoffs. D’Arrigo agrees to abide by laws on health and safety (hardly a concession), while the union that once used contracts to limit pesticide exposure now forfeits workers’ right to file grievances on safety issues. Nor can workers use arbitration to contest a host of other decisions defined as management rights, including the right to hire, fire, lay off, discipline and reassign employees. By some labor lawyers’ interpretations, this clause is so broad as to effectively deprive farmworkers of the cornerstone of any standard contract: the right to appeal decisions to a neutral third party.

Perhaps most significant, the company is free to use labor contractors, and workers provided by those middlemen are not covered by the union pact. That means the company could effectively shift much of its workforce out of the union. Such a concession undercuts the spirit if not the letter of the 1975 law governing farmworkers’ right to organize in California -- a law designed to quash the influence of labor contractors by stipulating that all workers are considered employees of the company for purposes of union elections and representation.


Another key provision of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act is the “make-whole remedy,” which says an employer who bargains in bad faith is liable for the back wages employees would have earned had a contract been in place. That is intended to compensate workers for unfair delays and to provide an incentive for employers to negotiate. After years of pressing complaints against D’Arrigo Bros., the UFW emerged victorious last year when the state issued a strongly worded decision concluding that the company had bargained in bad faith and owed employees back pay with interest -- the wages they could have earned since Jan. 28, 2000. But as part of the recent D’Arrigo agreement, the UFW dropped its complaint, giving up hundreds of workers’ claims to back pay. And the state took the extraordinary step of expunging its May 2006 decision from the record, erasing all evidence of D’Arrigo Bros.’ pattern of bad-faith bargaining and violations of the labor relations act.

The UFW has entered into a series of substandard contracts in recent years. A cynical view is that the union is desperate to sign agreements, at any cost, that will keep dues-paying members and guarantee payments into the union-affiliated health and pension plans. A more generous interpretation is that the union simply lacks the power to negotiate better deals.

In any case, those contracts are catching up with the UFW at the bargaining table. The D’Arrigo Bros. agreement was reached through mandatory mediation, a process that considers existing pacts to determine what is equitable. By signing weak contracts in the past, the union helped ensure that the industry standard was low.

The contracts have hurt the union in the fields as well. Workers have turned against the UFW when wage increases didn’t cover the 2% dues, effectively resulting in a pay cut. Just since April, workers at three companies with UFW contracts voted the union out. One vote was at a Gallo vineyard, a brand once so closely associated with the UFW boycotts of the 1970s that some still shun Gallo wine out of habit. Another union loss came at a large San Joaquin Valley fruit farm, where workers earned only minimum wage and had no health insurance. Workers at those ranches and a third small winery told Santa Rosa Press Democrat reporters that the UFW had little credibility and didn’t live up to promises. They also said union organizers used pressure and scare tactics rather than offering a rationale for support. Workers saw no reason to pay dues to an organization that neither helped nor respected them.

In recent years, the UFW has issued numerous fundraising appeals, asking supporters for contributions to help D’Arrigo Bros. workers fight for a contract. The campaign included letters from Latino elected officials and even Sen. Hillary Rodham Clinton, all imploring D’Arrigo Bros. to negotiate. Yet the UFW has not said a word about the final deal signed on Oct. 9, an uncharacteristic reticence on the part of a union usually quick to publicize any victory, however dubious. Perhaps even the UFW leadership recognizes that after waiting more than three decades, this contract is nothing to brag about.