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Strike forces Halos grower to roll back farmworker pay cut

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Workers who pick the mandarins marketed as Halos demonstrate Monday outside Wonderful Co.'s plant near Delano, Calif. They opted to return to work after the company agreed to restore a pay cut.
(Armando Elenes/UFW)

A four-day walkout by 1,800 farmworkers who pick Halo mandarins has forced Wonderful Co. to restore a pay cut.

Other job issues were left unresolved, though the nonunionized contract workers chose to return to picking the palm-sized fruit popular in school lunches.

The United Farm Workers of America, which supported the walkout, said the company has not engaged in formal talks with the workers, despite its announcement of the restored pay rate.

“It’s a big victory, but there are a lot of other issues,” said Armando Elenes, secretary-treasurer of the UFW, which does not formally represent the workers. The union announced on Facebook late Monday that workers had decided to return to work.

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Wonderful Halos is a trademarked marketing name for seedless mandarin oranges, a category that includes several varieties of clementines. They are picked during different seasons in a broad area of the San Joaquin Valley, stretching more than 150 miles from south of Bakersfield to Madera.

Workers who were switching between these crops were told last week that the price paid for filling a bin with the fruit would drop from $53 to $48, effectively slicing their average hourly wage by a dollar or two, Elenes said. Although workers are guaranteed a state-mandated agricultural minimum wage, currently $12 per hour, many boost that pay through “piece” rates based on how much they pick.

Amid a years-long agricultural labor shortage, Wonderful last month raised its minimum wage to $15 per hour, but only for the estimated 2,000 year-round, full-time workers it hires directly, including those who process and pack fruit and nuts.

Wonderful Co. said Monday it has “resolved the main concern raised by our third-party labor contractors” and will restore the previous bin rate. “The majority of our workers are back on the job, and we anticipate returning to normal operations soon,” the company added.

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But strike leader Luis Benitez, a Bakersfield resident who has picked citrus for 15 years, said the company has not responded to complaints about unpaid time between reporting for work and starting to pick, among other issues. “What we want is to talk to a representative of the company,” he said.

Elenes accused the company of “trying to wash their hands by saying these are employees of labor contractors,” when California law generally holds growers and contractors equally responsible for labor issues.

Owned by Beverly Hills billionaires Stewart and Lynda Resnick, Wonderful generates $4 billion in annual revenue and employs about 9,000 people, half of them in California.

It is among the fastest-growing packaged goods companies in the country, selling trademarked brands of almonds, pistachios, Pom Wonderful pomegranate juice, Fiji Water and mandarins, as well as wines under two brands and flowers through delivery company Teleflora.

The bulk of the harvesters on Wonderful’s 14,000 acres of mandarin orchards are hired through independent labor contractors, Elenes said. He estimated that 1,800 such workers left their shifts Friday and several hundred showed up to protest Monday at the company’s Halo plant in Delano.

The independent walkout could present an organizing opportunity for the UFW, which will petition to gain access to Wonderful’s fields, a precursor to a unionization campaign.

“These are workers who asked for our help,” Elenes said, adding that the union will do “whatever it takes” to get the company to sit down with workers and discuss wages and conditions. Benitez and fellow leader Sara Garcia said they have not spoken with fellow workers about their opinions on seeking union representation for collective bargaining.

Some crew bosses have threatened to fire workers who walked off, but most remained neutral, Benitez said. Workers have a few employment alternatives, including other citrus orchards and vineyards, Benitez said. He has a wife and child to support.

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“That pay is how we live,” Benitez said. “It’s how we put food on the table, how we pay for gasoline to get to work.”

geoffrey.mohan@latimes.com

Follow me: @LATgeoffmohan


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