Labor Branches Out
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
ROD MINOTT: Workers at the Stemilt fruit packing plant in Wenatchee, Washington, recently gathered to air grievances.
WORKER: We have no seniority rights. We can be fired at any time basically. It just depends on whether the boss likes us or not.
ROD MINOTT: These night shift employees are among hundreds of workers now locked in a bitter labor dispute with the state’s giant apple industry. They listened as members of the Teamsters union updated them on efforts to organize apple workers.
WORKER: I believe that our only hope is to organize, join forces, and try to change the industry.
APPLE VIDEO SPOKESMAN: This is where the best apples in the world come from, the fertile valley of Washington State.
ROD MINOTT: The labor action comes at a time of unprecedented prosperity for apple companies. Apples are now the state’s top produce–a billion dollar a year crop that’s aggressively promoted worldwide through industry videos such as this:
INDUSTRY VIDEO: (song) Washington apples, ripe from the sun–
ROD MINOTT: Organized labor says that success has come at the expense of apple industry workers.
TEAMSTERS SPEAKER: Apple exports have increased 500 percent over the last 10 years. Apple workers are more productive than ever, but the industry refuses to share their success with the workers who made that success possible.
ROD MINOTT: Unions have staged protest rallies to voice their anger. Key issues in the apple campaign include working conditions, job security, and wages. As an example, the average apple warehouse worker, who sorts and packs fruit, earns about $8 an hour. According to union activists most plants do not offer medical benefits, or they offer health plans that require employee contributions, a cost few workers say they’re able to afford. These demands by big labor are not new–but the strategies have changed.
SPOKESMAN: Hello Teamsters.
ROD MINOTT: In one of the largest unionizing drives now underway in the nation the apple campaign has united former rivals–the Teamsters and the United Farm Workers. Their target: the 55,000 workers who pick and pack Washington State apples. It’s a dramatic turnabout from the bitter feud that played out between the two unions in the 1970′s in California. At the time the Teamsters and UFW were competing over the right to represent farm workers.
TEAMSTER GUY: (shouting) Commie bums you stink, you smell, you’re a lousy bunch of commies.
ROD MINOTT: When some California growers signed labor contracts with the Teamsters, it triggered angry and bloody clashes between the rival unions. The violence resulted in passage of state legislation that gave farm workers the legal right to organize and set up a labor relations board to mediate future disputes.
LUPE GAMBOA, United Farm Workers: These are the action plans that we developed on the apple organizing campaign.
ROD MINOTT: Lupe Gamboa of the United Farm Workers heads the drive to organize Washington State’s 40,000 apple pickers.
LUPE GAMBOA: We’re coordinating with the Teamsters. They have their own organizing campaign in the apple warehouses, and we’re organizing in the orchards, and the reason that we’re doing it is because, you know, in unity there’s strength. We’re finding out that it’s working very well.
ROD MINOTT: David Olson, a labor expert at the University of Washington, agrees that both the farm workers and Teamsters benefit from a united campaign.
DAVID OLSON, University of Washington: One of the most important is that the Teamsters, the largest trade union in the United States numerically, is losing membership, and their incentive is to increase their membership. The United Farm Workers, on the other hand, have fought some very bitter, very difficult struggles and have not been as successful as they would like to be. They see the resources that the Teamsters Union bring to the alliance in the form of money, strike benefits.
ROD MINOTT: Much of the battle over apples is being wages in the Central Washington City of Wenatchee, an agricultural community of 60,000. Wenatchee claims to be the apple capital of the world. Orchards here help provide about 60 percent of the nation’s fresh apples. For seven years, Mary Mendez has packed apples for Stemilt growers in Wenatchee, one of the largest apple packing and shipping houses in the region.
MARY MENDEZ: (speaking through interpreter) In 1995, I earned $18,500. In 1996, I made $13,500. Now, the cost of living is going up. But when there are raises, either they’re very small, or, in some cases, we’re actually making less money. We’re going to be finishing up the year now, and to date, I’ve made $12,000. My rent, my expenses, and food aren’t going down; they’re increasing.
ROD MINOTT: Mendez thinks workers would benefit by joining the Teamsters.
MARY MENDEZ: More than anything we need a union for job security because the rules state clearly right now that we can be fired any time with or without a reason.
ROD MINOTT: Even so, some Stemilt workers like Mary Marker say they don’t want a union.
MARY MARKER: Well, I don’t particularly care to have somebody speaking for me when I can speak for myself. You know, I work hard for my money, and I don’t feel that I should give another person the money just to speak for me.
TOM MATHISON: You know, getting the product to the market and getting a fair return is what we’re about, and packing, and storing, and all the other things are just part of it.
ROD MINOTT: Stemilts’ owner, Tom Mathison, says apple owners are not exploiting workers to make profits. He says his employees are among the highest paid workers in the industry earning an average of $8.50 an hour.
TOM MATHISON: For them to say that there hasn’t been improvements is not true; there’s huge improvements that have been made in wages and benefits, and they will continue to accrue as our efficiencies increase, as we learn to work together and improve our product and be able to compete better, they will continue to improve.
ROD MINOTT: Stemilt is one of the few apple companies that offer benefits, including medical and retirement plans. And even though apple industry revenues have tripled in the past decade, Mathison says the profit margin for companies like his remains slim and says effort to unionize family-owned apple companies like Stemilt pose a threat to staying competitive.
TOM MATHISON: Huge volume of product coming from dozens of other countries, a lot of emerging countries, third world countries, where prices and conditions and working conditions and wages are a lot lower, we have to go head to head with those; we have to have efficiency; we have to have quality of product; we have to have all the factors that involve competition in order to compete in those markets; and the only way we can get that and do that and succeed is by working together, and if we work against each other, we’re bound to fail.
LUPE GAMBOA: These are golden delicious–they’re very difficult to pick because they bruise very easily. And this is a bin that holds about a thousand pounds of apples, which is over 2,000 apples. A good worker can make four, five, six bins a day, which is, you know, from $40 to $60.
ROD MINOTT: Out in the orchards, Lupe Gamboa says wages for apple pickers are even worse than those for warehouse workers.
LUPE GAMBOA: It’s gotten pretty bad, the average wage for orchard workers is a little under $6,000 a year, according to a study that was done by Employment Security in 1995, and it’s very tiring, very hard work, and there’s real problems. You know when the wage stays the same–at the same time that the cost of living just keeps going up and up.
ROD MINOTT: Despite the alliance between the United Farm Workers and Teamsters, labor expert Olson believes the effort to unionize will still be a long, uphill fight.
DAVID OLSON: I think that organizing farm workers or warehouse workers is one of the most difficult occupational sectors to organize. You’re dealing with a group of workers who tend to be on the lowest end of the salary scale, some of whose residency within the United States is constantly being questioned by law enforcement officials. You’re dealing with a work force that is traumatized in many ways by the environment within which they exist, so you put that on top of all of the other difficulties of organizing workers and the answer to that question is: this is a very difficult campaign.
ROD MINOTT: Both sides say they’re bracing for a long battle, one that could last years and may eventually include strikes and a nationwide boycott of Washington State apples.