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Conflict in the Strawberry Fieldsby Cece Modupé Fadopé
Rain showers, lovely flowers and fresh fruits signal the spring season. In Watsonville, California, otherwise known as "strawberry country," growers and pickers are gearing up for this year's harvest, when 270 strawberry farms and fields will be ready for the picking. But this spring, strawberry pickers, mostly migrant workers from Mexico, are resisting agribusiness as usual -- meager wages and a hazardous work environment combined with high industry profits.
The Strawberry Workers Campaign is a United Farm Workers of America (UFW) drive to unionize the 20,000 strawberry pickers in California.
The campaign's agenda, says UFW Campaign Director Irv Hirshenbaum, includes "clean drinking water and bathrooms in the fields, a living wage, job security, health insurance and an end to abuses such as sexual harassment and arbitrary firings."
Strawberry picking epitomizes farmwork at its most difficult and dangerous, because strawberries are one of the few crops for which there is no harvesting machinery. Pickers do "stoop labor" for 10 to 12 hours a day in California's strawberry fields. They suffer from chronic health, especially back, problems. In addition, workers are frequently exposed to high levels of toxic pesticides, including the soil fumigant methyl bromide.
Since launching the Strawberry Workers Campaign, the UFW and the AFL-CIO -- the UFW's partner in an unprecedented collaborative effort -- have led marches and conducted educational activities in Watsonville, California and other cities throughout the United States to gain public support. The effort is bearing fruit. Workers have garnered widespread support from individuals and organizations including a public endorsement from Ralph's, the largest supermarket chain in California.
The success of the campaign, UFW organizers say, will ultimately turn on the workers' ability to win union recognition from the big cooler corporations such as Wellpict, Driscoll and Gargiulo Farms, a subsidiary of the chemical giant Monsanto Corporation.
The UFW is focusing on these companies, which receive berries from the field and immediately refrigerate them, rather than on the growers who directly employ the pickers, because the cooler corporations are the true industry titans. They set prices, market and distribute the fruit and loan money to growers. Unless the big companies indicate a willingness to accept higher wages for pickers, growers will be under tremendous competitive pressure to keep wages down -- since any grower with high labor costs will lose business to low-wage competitors.
The strawberry industry has been quite profitable in recent years, but the industry has resisted demands to share this prosperity with its workers.
"For only five cents more per pint of strawberries that consumers buy in the store, this $650 million-a-year industry could increase workers' piece pay rate by 50 percent," says UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.
Union organizers say the corporations have waged a "whisper campaign" of intimidation to discourage worker participation in union drives.
Organizers also allege more direct acts of intimidation and retribution. UFW organizer Joyce Sherman says that whenever strawberry workers have voted for union representation in individual state-held secret ballot elections, growers have responded by "firing pickers, destroying farms, shutting down operations and abandoning workers." These aggressive tactics have succeeded completely in squashing union organizing attempts; no strawberry workers are currently organized.
The UFW points to the following examples to support its claim that the growers will go so far as to plow their fields under in order to avoid unionization:
Caloroso says "the UFW is misleading the public," because the horrible conditions described in the fields are "isolated examples and oftentimes grossly exaggerated."
In denying charges of sexual harassment in the fields, Caloroso also cites a recent lawsuit brought by two union organizers against the UFW. Two female organizers claim in the suit that UFW officials "encouraged them to have sexual [relations] with male farmworkers to recruit them into the union."
Joyce Sherman contends the Alliance is behind the lawsuit aimed at "discrediting UFW and frightening potential union members." She says the suit is typical of industry efforts to resist unionization by trying to "divide the workers."
The union-industry conflict is likely to escalate with the imminent harvest season. Farmworkers are hired seasonally, often on a daily basis. Organizers are bracing for industry reprisals against workers who have been active in the union, fearing they may not be rehired.
"In response to the workers' determination to end decades of exploitation in the fields, the strawberry industry and its allies have launched a vicious anti-union campaign marked by lies, intimidation and even violence," asserts a December statement issued by the AFL-CIO Executive Council. "Its purpose is to confuse, frighten and terrorize workers to force them to give up their effort to organize. As one of its tactics, the strawberry industry has threatened not to rehire union supporters for the 1997 harvesting season unless they stop supporting the campaign."
The campaign, which has already persuaded thousands of strawberry workers to sign union cards despite industry intimidation, expects a boost from a major union march scheduled for April 13 in Watsonville. The march will coincide with the start of the strawberry harvesting season in strawberry country, on California' central coast.
Cece Modupé Fadopé is a freelance writer based in Washington, D.C