August 28, 1998

Two Decades of Union Struggle Begin To Pay Off

EDITOR'S NOTE: In what may be a world record for long-term union bargaining, farm workers in the Salinas Valley are striking after 22 years of negotiations. The union is having considerable success persuading replacement workers to join them — a success that is in part the fruit of those years.

By David Bacon

Farm workers prepare to load onto an early morning bus.

SALINAS, CA — At the end of the great lettuce strike of 1970, virtually all the Salinas Valley's largest vegetable growers signed contracts with the United Farm Workers. Among them was the D'Arrigo Brothers produce company. For two years, its workers had a hiring hall, medical benefits, and wages that set a new standard for agricultural labor.

Two years later, D'Arrigo and other growers refused to re-negotiate those agreements. After four years, in one of the first representation elections held under the newly-passed Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the company's workers — hoping to regain what they had lost — voted for the UFW.

The union met with D'Arrigo's owners over and over again in the following years. Workers wore union buttons in the fields and marched through the streets of Salinas to the D'Arrigo offices. But the law betrayed them. It says companies have the obligation to bargain when workers vote the union in. D'Arrigo bargained but was never willing to reach agreement.

The company says it is in constant contact with the union. "We will continue to review and discuss their proposed contract," says Nick Pascouli, D'Arrigo's media relations spokesperson. "The company requires time to thoroughly analyze the UFW's proposal and develop our own counter proposal."

This summer, in late July, the company added what proved to be a final straw — it brought in machines. Workers cutting lettuce and broccoli rabe (rapini), who were paid by the piece but could work at their own pace, found themselves instead following a conveyor belt through the fields at a speed set by the machine's driver. To make matters worse, the company cut ten cents from the piece rate, using the money to pay that driver's wages.

Pascouli says rapini harvesters earn from between $8.81 to $15.23 an hour. But one experienced worker says, "I used to be able to make $60 on a good day, and now I make less."

Working the fields.

"We finally just came to the end of our patience," says Efrain Lara, a broccoli rabe cutter who heads the union committee. "Twenty-two years is too long to wait anyway. But cutting our wages — that was even more serious."

On August 5, Lara and his coworkers walked out on strike.

Since then, picketers have gathered early every morning on the dirt roads leading into the vegetable fields south of Salinas. As busloads of workers began to arrive one recent morning, strikers repeated a scene they have played since the strike began.

Some stop the buses while others open their emergency doors. Cries of "Unanse! — Come out with us!" fill the semi-darkness, as union supporters appeal to the workers on board to join the strike.

Some do, climbing out with their lunch bags. Others stay in their seats, squirm and try not to look out the window at the strikers.

Soon sheriff's deputies arrive and force the picketers to let the buses through. The strikers then form a line and call out to the strikebreakers with bullhorns. A few union organizers follow the crews to the field, and continue the conversation.

After an hour, UFW organizer Jesus Corona, holding his red-and-black union flag aloft, marches out of the field trailed by workers who have decided to honor the strike.

Of the 60 workers originally on the two buses, only a handful are working in the fields.

"It was kind of hard this morning, and it took a long time to convince them," Corona later explained, "but the workers usually support us, once they really think about what we're fighting for. They can see the strike will benefit everyone."

The union has been effective because it has been a visible, active presence in the company since 1970.

"We've had work stoppages before," Lara explains. "In 1986, for instance, when they cut the hourly guarantee from $7.05 to $6.00, we tried to fight that. We always had a committee to negotiate with the company, and we always fought with them to try to keep our benefits. What's different now is that we've decided to strike until we get our contract."

This season D'Arrigo — now the country's second largest vegetable producer — employs 900-1000 people in the Salinas Valley. About 600 of them are currently on strike, according to the union.

"Every day we go visit D'Arrigo workers at home, to ask them to join us," says UFW vice-president Efren Barajas. "We find family after family living in garages, all over the valley. And they work all day for this company, every day. What does it say about the wages here, where you find people living in garages? It says we don't earn enough to even rent a real place to live."

David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.

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