Crushing the Workers at UST

by Kurt Petersen

ON AN EARLY SATURDAY MORNING in June 1987, Chicano vineyard workers at U.S. Tobacco's Washington State winery took a dramatic step to protest management's refusal to allow a union election. A caravan of workers left the vineyards near the Columbia River and drove six hours to the company's palatial $30 million wine-tasting chateau near Seattle. During their day off, the workers and their families greeted patrons of the state's largest winery with leaflets, placards and songs. They asked the wine drinkers at the chateau to not purchase U.S. Tobacco's wines - Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wines - until the company recognized the right of its vineyard workers to elect a representative for collective bargaining. The June 1987 protest was the first of what became a weekly affair.

 The weekly protests at the chateau came to a sudden halt, however, in February 1988, when U.S. Tobacco announced that Saturday was to be a mandatory work day, reversing a decade-old rule. In the following weeks, the company stepped up its assault on the burgeoning union campaign in its vineyards. Several union leaders were discharged for spurious reasons, resulting in a multi-million dollar wrongful discharge lawsuit. Others were promoted to foreman positions. The company hired management consultants and distributed a personnel manual. The Fortune 500 corporation was determined to block this attempt to extend the rudiments of workplace democracy to farm workers, despite the fact that the winery's bottlers and truckers, who are better paid and predominantly white, were unionized.

 Almost five years later, the workers' demand for a union election persists. New leadership has surfaced again and again; if anything, the call for a union has grown louder. Last Independence Day the workers and their chosen representative, the United Farm Workers of Washington State (UFW of WS), initiated a nation-wide boycott of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest wines. Protests have resumed at the entrance of the chateau, but now sympathetic citizens, unionists and church members lead the picket line. Similar protests have begun to spring up across the country.

Premium wines, U.S. Tobacco and a new name

 In 1986, U.S. Tobacco quietly changed its name to UST. The name change represents U.S. Tobacco's growing discomfort with being known as "America's Chewing Tobacco King." Its chief product - moist, smokeless chewing tobacco - had earned healthy returns for stockholders since 1911, but had gradually become an unhealthy embarrassment in the age of fitness. Despite annually achieving one of the top five profit-to-sales ratios in the United States and consistently being rated by financial analysts as one of the strongest U.S. companies, UST has been obsessed with diversifying its one-dimensional empire. (UST controls almost 90 percent of the chewing tobacco market.) However, three decades of attempts had resulted in a potpourri of failed ventures which included efforts to market pet foods, cigarette papers and pens.

This litany of failures ended when U.S. Tobacco acquired its first vineyard in Washington in 1974. From this initial purchase, UST has grown to become the major wine producer in the Northwest, the nation's fastest growing wine region. UST now owns more than 4,000 acres of vineyards in Washington, Oregon and California, producing grapes for high-quality table wines. But that is just the beginning. Another 16,000 prime acres in Washington alone stand ready for grape cultivation. To date, UST has invested more than $100 million in the development of its wine empire.

 Premium wines have supplied a justification for removing the word "tobacco" from the original corporate title. Indeed, UST's 1991 annual report devotes nearly equal space to tobacco and wine, even though tobacco accounts for most of the company's profits. It prominently announces: "UST is ... Tobacco, Wine and Other Businesses."

Profit and accolades ... but no trickle down

 UST's ultimate goal is to become the Gallo of premium table wines. Enormous promotional efforts, including multi-million dollar ad campaigns and the hiring of Jeff Smith, "The Frugal Gourmet," as spokesperson, have resulted in soaring sales - from $8 million in 1984 to over $55 million in 1990. UST wines are now the second most popular premium table wines in the country. Profits have grown as well, though at a slower rate than sales due to high promotional costs. In 1988, the wine division finally ended in the black; a $3 million profit in 1990 bodes well for the future. Numerous awards and accolades, including recognition as winery of the year by the Tasters Guild and Wine and Spirits magazine, have complemented the spiralling sales.

 But while the wines have grown from obscurity to national prominence, the vineyard workers struggle to survive. Farm work is one of the most dangerous and strenuous jobs in the United States. The toll on the body of long hours of menial labor is severe. According to a recent Washington State Migrant Council report, the life expectancy of farm workers is 49 years, compared to the national average of 72. Farm workers at UST complain of widespread exposure to pesticides, and allege that those who speak out against careless spraying of pesticides are fired.

 Despite facing hazardous workplace conditions, farm workers are poorly paid. Though they work full-time most of the year, workers' annual incomes consistently fall below the poverty level. In fact, real wages have tumbled 25 percent since 1987. Because U.S. overtime laws exclude farm workers, UST refuses to pay its workers time-and-a-half for overtime.

The workers' most frequently voiced complaint, however, concerns the undignified treatment they receive from UST management. "Why are bottlers and truckers allowed to unionize but not us?" asks a worker. "Must you look a certain way or speak a certain language to belong to a union? To the company we are children and so the company wants to make decisions for us."

"The best agricultural employer in the state"

 Ignoring worker complaints of deplorable working conditions and compensation, UST has repeatedly called itself the "best agricultural employer" in the state. UST President Vincent Gierer, Jr. boasts, "Members of the Washington farm labor community eagerly seek employment at our company because of the benefits and progressive work policies we have instituted, and because of our ability to offer stable, full-time agricultural employment."

 Farmworkers and their allies dismiss Gierer's claims. "To call yourself the best agricultural employer is like being the best slave holder," comments George Finch, director of Centro Campesino, a farm worker advocacy group in Washington. "UST may be slightly less unconscionable than others, but this only demonstrates the gross inhumanity of most growers." For example, while UST plays up the health-care package it offers to farm workers after one year of full-time employment, workers point out it has deductibles that few can afford.

Consistent with its pretense of being benevolent, UST has couched its most recent response to the workers' demand for a union election in what are meant to seem reasonable and compassionate terms. In a November letter to the Farm Workers Justice Coalition, Gierer purports to agree that all workers, including farm workers, should have the right to workplace democracy, but says that the fundamental problem is the lack of legislation that guarantees the rights of farm workers and employers. Without a neutral legal structure, Gierer contends, fair union elections and collective bargaining are impossible. "Fair farm labor legislation, in the final analysis, is the only solution," concludes Gierer.

 Farm worker representatives express disdain for UST's position. Tomas Villanueva, president of the UFW of WS says, "Our request is simple: UST must practice the principles in the vineyard which it allegedly preaches to the legislature. If they did, they would truly be the humanitarian leader of agricultural employers they profess to be."

 Legally and practically, while farm labor legislation is desirable, it is certainly not a prerequisite for UST recognizing the vineyard workers' right to organize. Workers organized unions and negotiated collective bargaining agreements long before labor laws were on the books. Moreover, opposing parties have been able to forge compromises in recent situations in which farm workers demanded the right to a union election in states without legal protections. For instance, a dispute between Campbell Soup and Ohio farm workers ended in the mid-1980s with the formation of an independent commission to supervise elections and collective bargaining. In addition to suggesting the formation of a similar commission, UST workers have proposed using the Washington Public Employees Commission, which regulates negotiations between employees and employers who consent to its authority. UST, without explanation, has rejected these proposals and every other effort for conciliation through a neutral third party.

Moreover, though UST now claims to be an advocate of farm worker rights, it did not begin to profess concern for such rights until after it failed to squelch the union campaign in its own vineyards. Though Grierer brags that "we are the only Washington State agricultural concern that to our knowledge has supported legislation in support of farm workers," observers question the sincerity of this commitment. In the 1990 Washington State legislative session, UST did not present testimony at the hearing on the state agricultural relations bill, much less propose a bill itself. Further, UST's professed confidence in the passage of a bill is based on the dubious assumption that the Washington State legislature (which vetoed a minimum wage for farm workers) will reverse 50 years of intransigent resistance to farm worker labor protections.

The expanding struggle

 As the vineyard workers approach the fifth anniversary of their protests outside the gates of UST's chateau, their spirit and outlook are remarkably optimistic. "This is a struggle we will win. Eventually they will give in to the pressure," asserts one worker. This confidence stems in part from expanding support for the boycott. Dozens of unions, community and church groups, including the Washington Association of Churches, have endorsed the boycott.

 In October 1991, the Farm Worker Justice Coalition launched the boycott of Chateau Ste. Michelle and Columbia Crest in the Northeast with a demonstration at a Connecticut restaurant which had refused to replace the wines. The next day the proprietor of the restaurant called an emergency meeting and agreed, as a temporary measure, to place boycott cards in the wine lists of his five local restaurants. In addition, the head of the winery held an unannounced meeting with the farm workers, promising them a share in the company's prosperity. UST has not, however, offered a union election - at least, not yet.



A Faustian bargain

BECAUSE FARM WORKERS are the only workers excluded from the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), they lack the legal leverage to compel their employers to recognize the results of union elections. When the NLRA and other New Deal federal labor laws were passed, the white industrial unions in effect traded the rights of (mostly black) farm workers, mainly in the South, for the critical Southern Democratic vote. Fifty years later, farm workers across the nation remain unprotected by the federal labor laws that establish the right to organize and bargain collectively. Without compulsion of law, economic bargaining power or a fair employer, farm workers have few options: they can quit or they can urge consumers and other outside groups and organizations to help them win their rights.

 - K.P.