JUNE 10, 1997
Unionists gather to support the United Farm Workers Union in its campaign to organize the workers who pick and process California's strawberries. Spencer Michels reports.
JIM LEHRER: Spencer Michels has the union story.
SPENCER MICHELS: On a Sunday in mid April an army of twenty to thirty thousand unionists and their allies invaded the tiny Northern California farm town of Watsonville. Their aim: to support the United Farm Workers Union, the UFW, in its campaign to organize the workers who pick and process California's strawberries. The organizing drive was seen as such an important part of the AFL-CIO's new effort to expand its membership that its top leaders came to march, including Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka.
RICHARD TRUMKA, Treasury Secretary, AFL-CIO: We want to make organizing our number one priority. We were looking for a national campaign that everybody could become a part of. This is the campaign.
SPENCER MICHELS: The campaign focuses on the 20,000 farm laborers who cultivate and pick strawberries, a $600 million crop in California alone. Some of them earn minimum wage; others up to $8 an hour for an average of $8500 during the six-month harvest season. Much has changed in the farm scene since Cesar Chavez began the UFW in the 1960's, marching through the state to organize the mostly Spanish-speaking farm workers. From the beginning, Chavez had always relied on liberal sympathizers like Robert Kennedy to help his cause. In those days, California laws made it difficult for farm workers to join a union or bargain with employers. But the UFW got the laws changed, and by 1973, Chavez had signed up 80,000 workers who worked under union contracts. But then the UFW went into a steep decline. After reaching its peak, membership slipped in one year to 5,000 and remained in the doldrums for two decades. But now the farm workers union is the fastest growing union in the country, with a membership of 26,000. Monterey Mushrooms, the largest mushroom grower in North America, is just one of the fourteen elections the union has won in the last few years. The company is relatively happy with the contract, and so are the pickers, like Bulmaro Hernandez, who earns $8.20 an hour.
BULMARO HERNADEZ, Mushroom Worker: (speaking through interpreter) I am very happy there at Monterey Mushrooms, having a union there, because they--I have all the benefits. My family's covered, and I've got the dental plan.
SPENCER MICHELS: Despite the union's successes in mushrooms, roses, and wine grapes. Farm worker wages have been falling for the past 20 years. The UFW's current president, Arturo Rodriguez, is determined to turn that trend around. He's relying on allies like Robert Kennedy's son, Rep. Joseph Kennedy, who offered support in Watsonville. The strawberry fields may be the toughest row Rodriguez has chosen to hoe because the growers are organized, and they're determined to fight back. But Rodriguez says these workers are the ones who most need a union because their work is so hard.
ARTURO RODRIGUEZ, President, United Farm Workers: We've seen the conditions of workers here. We see the fact that people are literally slaving out there in strawberry fields, stooping over 10 hours a day, working for minimum wage or a little bit better than minimum wage.
SPENCER MICHELS: Rodriguez is spending most of his time in Watsonville, organizing the drive and meeting the workers, like the two families who live in one small house at this farm labor camp.
ARTURO RODRIGUEZ: What's sad about this situation is the family has 25 years living here in this area, and after 25 years, this is all that they really have to show for spending their whole life picking fruits and vegetables to feed the nation, to feed consumers.
SPENCER MICHELS: The union also complains about unsanitary conditions for workers, few medical plans, sexual harassment of women workers, and exposure to pesticides. But J. Miles Reiter, who owns of the largest strawberry ranches in the state, says the union's allegations are deceptive.
J. MILES REITER, Strawberry Grower: I don't think you'd find anybody in this industry that doesn't feel very strongly about safety with regard to pesticides. We essentially do everything that they're talking about is their goal, you know, whether it's job security, health insurance, wages about 40 percent over what they claim the average is. Yeah. That's deceptive.
SPENCER MICHELS: Although some of Reiter's workers support the UFW, others don't. Twenty-four-year-old Cristobal Alvarez says he doesn't a union.
INTERPRETER SPEAKING FOR CRISTOBAL ALVAREZ, Farm Worker: He says that they're promising him, you know, benefits that he already has in this company. For example, like insurance, medical insurance, you know, they have insurance already, and of course, workers' compensation insurance.
SPENCER MICHELS: The UFW argues that it wants all growers legally obligated to provide benefits and wages so that workers aren't dependent on the generosity of individual growers. But the growers aren't standing still. Last year, they helped organize this march of 5,000 farm workers and others through Watsonville protesting union activity. The union's few victories have been undermined by determined growers, according to the AFL-CIO's Richard Trumka.
RICHARD TRUMKA: And every time we'd organize one of the growers they'd plow their crops under, then lay off all the workers, and threaten them, intimidate them. So we decided to go after the entire industry.
SPENCER MICHELS: That's why the union hasn't emphasized elections of any single grower. Instead, its tactics appear to be a combination of bringing public attention to the issue and confronting growers and shippers with their demands. This spring union members and organizers descended on Ed Kelly, grower and shipper, over the issues of rehiring a union supporter and field sanitation.
IRV HIRSHENBAUM, United Farm Workers: What we're asking you to do is this: If you're committed to rehiring people on a seniority basis, we accept that, and we're going to hold you to that, and I don't think that's a problem.
ED KELLY, Strawberry Grower: You don't have to hold me to it.
IRV HIRSHENBAUM: I know.
ED KELLY: As I explained to a group of people the other day, I don't have to be told by you or the government, I was told by my mother and father, and I treat people accordingly. I treat Leobardo, who is--is in the opposition--he's my friend. He's my friend. I treat Leobardo no differently than I would treat--despite the fact that Leobardo is--doesn't represent the majority on my ranch.
IRV HIRSHENBAUM: Well, the reason why is because you put an anti-union committee in there, and you--
ED KELLY: I don't have an anti-union committee.
IRV HIRSHENBAUM: And you and the other growers have formed a front group to do a campaign.
ED KELLY: We are for every strict enforcement of the law. The law says I have to clean my toilets three times a week. I clean ‘em six times a week. I clean ‘em because I don't want my toilets--if my wife can't go use that toilet, then I don't want Leobardo or Salvador or anybody else to have to use that toilet that's not clean enough for my wife.
SPENCER MICHELS: The union is also reaching out to the public. It's staged a series of press conferences around the country to rally support.
ARTURO RODRIGUEZ: Americans are buying more strawberries than ever, but few know about the miserable conditions workers endure.
SPENCER MICHELS: Union officials signed a pledge they hope that consumers will also endorse that will then pressure supermarkets to support the union's demands. Some fear that all this pressure will lead to a boycott, consumers and union sympathizers not buying strawberries. Such a boycott would be a throwback to the UFW-sponsored boycotts of grapes and lettuce in years past, which severely hurt growers. In fact, Phil Adrian fears just such a boycott. Adrian is manager of Driscoll's, the largest shipper and one of the top union targets.
PHIL ADRIAN, Driscoll's Strawberries: By going into the marketplace and talking with the retailers, the wholesalers with the consumer, you're looking to close markets and take that basic right of choice away from the farm workers, themselves. And when you get into boycotts, Driscoll's would be hurt. Driscoll's growers would be hurt, and so would the farm workers.
SPENCER MICHELS: The union denies that a boycott is in its plans.
ARTURO RODRIGUEZ: I mean, if they would sit down and just talk with us and again work out this situation in a reasonable and rational way, there's nothing to fear in terms of a boycott. We're just trying to get their attention. They won't even talk to us right now.
SPENCER MICHELS: Perhaps the most important change in UFW strategy is its tight alliance with the AFL-CIO and with its old rival, the Teamsters. The relationship between the organizations has been lukewarm for years, but now the AFL-CIO is investing heavily in the UFW.
RICHARD TRUMKA: We won't quit here until we win, and it may not be today or tomorrow, next week or next month, but I guarantee you, when it's all done, the strawberry pickers are going to be 100 percent union.
SPENCER MICHELS: It's a fight seen as essential not just to the farm workers but to the entire labor movement according to the AFL-CIO's president, John Sweeney.
JOHN SWEENEY, President, AFL-CIO: We're committed to staying with the farm workers as long as it takes, but it also represents what's going on all across the country and hopefully will contribute to energizing and building strong organizing campaigns in every industry, not only low wage workers but also professionals and high-tech workers as well.
SPENCER MICHELS: In the next few months the UFW is hoping to convince or to pressure a few large growers not to actively oppose union organizing activity, but, instead, to remain neutral. Eventually, the campaign's success or failure must depend on farm workers who, under the law, will have to vote for or against union representation.