Fruits of Their Labor
WATSONVILLE -- When Delfina Corcoles showed up to work in her strawberry-picking crew, the other workers stared at her as they would a ghost. They'd been sure they would never see her in the fields again. But there she was, not only ready to work but defiantly showing off her union button, her union cap and a T-shirt with the big black eagle of the United Farm Workers emblazoned across it."My friends said, 'They're going to fire you for wearing that,'"she recalls. But to the amazement of her fellow crew members, the foreman greeted her politely and had a quiet conversation with her on the edge of the field.Her picking crew went into the rows of the Gargiulo Corporation's huge Watsonville strawberry field, where several others had already begun work. Pickers bent low over the dark-green plants, hugging the ground, pulling off the ripe red berries and packing them into cardboard crates they pushed along on muddy little wheels.As workers in other crews realized that Corcoles was there, they began standing up, pointing at her, then saluting with their hands in the air -- "the way they would greet a general," she remembers with a smile. And from across the sea of strawberry plants, the workers began calling out. "'Here comes la flaca [the skinny one], the one they said was never coming back! Here she is!' And so I yelled back to them, 'Here I am! Here I am!'"To supporters of the United Farm Workers' Watsonville organizing drive -- one of two high-profile organizing campaigns that John Sweeney's new-model AFL-CIO had targeted for help this year as it sought to return the labor movement to its movement-building roots -- Corcoles' return signaled a breakthrough for the union's efforts. Just how much of a breakthrough should become clear in the next few weeks: The strawberry season winds down in September, and there's a real prospect that the Farm Workers will have won the right to represent Gargiulo's employees before the season ends.The Watsonville wars have confirmed the UFW's reputation as a union that knows how to run a classic worker-driven campaign. This time, though, that effort has been augmented by a bold innovation in what unions call "corporate strategies," by having the AFL-CIO apparently assist in the sale of Gargiulo to a union-friendly buyer. Waging a campaign that's part Steinbeck, part stock transfer, labor has fought the strawberry battle in the fields and in the suites. Corcoles' job history illustrates the turnabout in the fields. Last year, as the UFW began its campaign, she recruited members for the union at her company. This year, when the picking started in March, she didn't get her job back. She went to the company office, where, she says, "They told me they were thinking of not recalling anyone who signed a card with the union." In fact, pro-union workers on almost all the ranches were not brought back.Corcoles' employer, Gargiulo, is the largest strawberry company on California's central coast, the heart of the industry. Growers in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys employ about 15,000 workers at the height of the season, who pick a crop valued at $650 million. They all funnel their berries into seven big middleman companies called coolers, which handle shipping and sales and control almost every aspect of production, marketing and labor relations. Gargiulo is both a grower, directly employing more than 1,000 workers, and a cooler, handling its own berries along with those of other growers.Last year, when the United Farm Workers commenced its campaign to organize the state's strawberry workers, the growers maintained a common front against the union. When this year's season started in March, their cooperation was still evident in their widespread effort to avoid rehiring union supporters like Corcoles.This spring, their common front began to crumble. In recent months, Watsonville growers have begun dividing into separate camps, some entertaining the possibility of agreement with the UFW, others acting as if they would rather fight to the death. An all-out class war is brewing, with a number of employers embarking on an ambitious campaign to divert workers into a company-controlled pseudo-union.But the union the growers are going up against has transformed itself in the four years since the death of founder Cesar Chavez. Led by president Arturo Rodriguez, Chavez's successor, the UFW has won 14 consecutive elections. Two years ago, it won contracts at Delano's major rose growers, among them Bear Creek, the world's largest. The mushroom industry of the Central Coast is also now under contract -- and many Watsonville and Salinas farm-worker families include both mushroom and strawberry pickers.Rodriguez has a reputation as a meticulous and patient organizer. He spent the late 1980s quietly building the union's associate-membership program for farm workers whom the union could not represent contractually. By the time of the UFW's 1994 march from Delano to Sacramento, Rodriguez's work had begun to pay off. Since then, the UFW has signed 15 new contracts. Its membership is up to 26,000, an increase of 4,700 workers at peak season.Watsonville's strawberry workers, a high percentage of whom are recent immigrants, present the union with its biggest challenge yet. Many of them weren't even born when the union fought its seminal battles with California growers in the '60s and '70s. "It's difficult organizing where such a large percentage of the workers are migratory," Rodriguez says, adding that this is "a work force that for the most part has never had the opportunity to work under a union contract. We have to spend a lot of time educating them about what successes we had in building this union, and what Cesar Chavez meant to farm workers."Watsonville also presents a challenge to Sweeney's AFL-CIO. In his successful insurgent campaign for the federation presidency, Sweeney vowed to reverse labor's decadeslong decline by getting the movement organizing again. Precious few of the AFL-CIO's 78 member unions were ready and able to organize, though, when Sweeney took office. This February, the federation's executive council pledged an all-out effort to help two out of the handful of major organizing drives then in the works -- a multi-union endeavor in Las Vegas and the UFW's Watsonville campaign. For the AFL-CIO, as well as for the UFW, Watsonville has come to symbolize an opportunity for rebirth.By April, it was apparent to all that the AFL-CIO had arrived in Watsonville big-time. On the 13th, it sponsored a march of 30,000 UFW supporters from around the country. In fact, the federation had already been supplying much of the support staff for the organizing drive, while the actual organizers in the field, in the best UFW tradition, were current or former farm workers.The centerpiece of the UFW's campaign quickly became its fight to restore the jobs of union supporters like Corcoles. Three blacklisted workers led the April 13 march. The next day, workers began visiting the coolers, demanding to be returned to their jobs. One group of 12, including a 3-year-old child, went to the offices of the Well-Pict cooler on Watsonville's east side. Managers closed and locked the doors, trapping them in the lobby, and called the police. Everyone, toddler included, was arrested.The blacklisting of workers was soon taken up by the AFL-CIO's "5¢ for Fairness" campaign, a nationwide effort to mobilize support for the organizing drive. (The 5 cents, said organizers, was all that it would cost per basket of strawberries for the companies to pay the workers adequately and provide them with benefits.) Across the country, municipal labor councils rallied UFW backers to call on supermarket managers, demanding the rehiring of the Watsonville workers along with improved wages, medical insurance and better working conditions.Strawberry growers could see that the "5¢ for Fairness" pledge might easily become a boycott. At the time of the April 13 march, more than 2,000 stores, including the A&P and Ralphs chains, had signed onto it, signaling their support for any growers willing to break ranks in support of the workers. In May, the union picked up the support of another 1,000 markets by persuading American Stores, the parent company for the Jewels and Lucky chains, to sign the pledge.The relative ease with which the farm workers won the cooperation of major chains was a stark contrast to their experience in the '60s and '70s, when they put together their famous grape boycott without the assistance of the unions that could have helped them most. In the current round of discussions with the markets, though, the union has had the crucial support of the United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW), which represents most supermarket employees. Indeed, UFCW president Doug Dority helped lead the April 13 march. The Teamsters, which represents supermarket truckers and warehouse employees, was already cooperating with the UFW's efforts to organize the workers inside the strawberry coolers, and joined in the attempt to put pressure on the food retailers.While the UFW was amassing support from retailers, it was also targeting Gargiulo right from the start of the season. Gargiulo may have been a giant in the strawberry industry, but it was just one small part of a genuine corporate giant -- Monsanto, the chemical conglomerate. Calculating that the discord at Gargiulo might bring more disrepute on Monsanto than the company had bargained for, the AFL-CIO and the UFW began pressuring Monsanto to come to a settlement. In February, several farm workers filed suit, claiming up to $2 million in lost wages from Monsanto for extra time that Gargiulo had required of them before and after their shifts. In March, Gargiulo and other companies were hit with suits charging that they had failed to notify workers of their exposure to toxic pesticides, as required by California's Proposition 65.On the day of the big Watsonville march, full-page ads directed at Monsanto ran in The New York Times. The company was also hit by AFL-CIO-coordinated demonstrations in cities around the country in the days that followed, ä rallies demanding that the corporation rein in its anti-UFW campaign at Gargiulo.In May, UFW leaders attended the Monsanto shareholders meeting in St. Louis, where Jose Rojas, a blacklisted Gargiulo worker, addressed investors. AFL-CIO president Sweeney then arranged a meeting between Rodriguez and Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro. Together, they arrived at a strategy that would finally allow the UFW to crack the growers' united front.At the end of May, they signed a formal pact announcing "a framework for a positive relationship that should result in an agreement that protects the rights of workers to decide for themselves, free from coercion by anyone, whether to join a union, as well as protecting the interests of Monsanto and Gargiulo." After the agreement was reached, active campaigning by company personnel against the union ceased, and Gargiulo settled the lost wages claim.The agreement with Monsanto turned out to be one part of a more ambitious and complicated set of maneuvers that the AFL-CIO had embarked upon to help the organizing drive. Gargiulo is a diversified grower, with major holdings in other crops, especially tomatoes in Florida and northern Mexico. Gargiulo in turn had belonged to the Calgene Co., which pioneered the development of a genetically engineered variety of tomato, adapted for long shelf life and long-distance transport.Monsanto began acquiring Calgene two years ago -- a process it completed only this spring -- chiefly because it wanted a slice of the genetically altered tomato. The huge corporation is deeply invested in agriculture, manufacturing a wide variety of herbicides and other agricultural chemicals used worldwide. One of its major moneymakers is the herbicide Roundup -- which put Monsanto in a particularly unhappy position. Hammered on one side by the UFW and the AFL-CIO, it could hardly afford also to antagonize the customer base that purchased its herbicide. Karen Miller, a strawberry grower who with her husband owns Clint Miller Farms and has vehemently opposed the UFW drive, illustrates the conglomerate's dilemma. "Monsanto," she says, "should remember who buys Roundup."By the time of the St. Louis meeting with Rodriguez, Monsanto wanted out.And just a few weeks later, it was out.On June 17, two investors, Landon Butler and David Gladstone, agreed to buy Gargiulo's strawberry operation from Monsanto and run it as an independent company, maintaining the neutrality agreement with the union. Their new company is called Coastal Berry.Not coincidentally, one of the investors has a long history of working with the AFL-CIO. Butler served as deputy chief of staff in the Carter administration, and was the White House liaison to organized labor. After leaving the administration, he became an investment adviser to Taft-Hartley pension funds, which are jointly administered by unions and employers. These pension funds control some of the largest accumulations of investment capital in the world. They are routinely invested in mutual funds, real estate and building ventures, and other areas where the return on investment pays for pensions for retired union members. Moreover, the construction ventures in which they invest characteristically employ union labor. Butler himself administers an investment operation that pools money from pension funds, and invests it in real estate -- the Multi-Employer Property Trust. Gladstone retired in 1997 as CEO of Allied Capital, a Washington-based venture capital fund.Butler already had small investments in agricultural operations in Mississippi and in Texas rangeland when he purchased Gargiulo. He says that while Monsanto was negotiating its neutrality agreement with the UFW, the company contacted him. "I was reached out to by folks there," he says, who knew of his connection with Taft-Hartley funds. "We took a look at the company, liked the risk and decided to invest." Butler flatly asserts that no union or union pension funds were used to purchase the company. But at minimum, it seems extremely unlikely that the grapevine through which Monsanto heard of him didn't start at AFL-CIO headquarters.With Gargiulo's declaration of neutrality in hand, the UFW will undoubtedly file for an election covering the company's work force in the Watsonville-Salinas area and in Ventura County this season. Should the union win this election, the company has agreed to recognize it and begin contract negotiations. In its efforts to convince workers that the union can help them, the UFW has been helped considerably by the highly visible return of UFW supporters like Corcoles to the work site. "When workers saw me with my union T-shirt on, it made them feel really good," Corcoles says. "It's not just that they can see that it's possible to support the union. When they saw the foreman treating me with respect, they began to ask themselves, 'Why her and not us?'In his first month as a strawberry grower, Butler has called up other growers in the area to try to develop good relations. "We want to be collegial," he says.It's not clear his newfound colleagues want to reciprocate. Many growers are furious at what they see as a betrayal. The Western Growers Association, to which nearly every strawberry grower belongs, has tried to block a union election at Coastal Berry by filing legal charges with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. In effect, the WGA contends that by not actively campaigning against the union, Coastal Berry is unfairly favoring it.Behind the legal maneuvering, however, what really has strawberry growers worried is the possible recurrence of the same scenario that confronted table-grape growers in the mid-1970s. In 1973, those growers signed sweetheart agreements with the then-unreformed Teamsters Union, and tore up their UFW contracts. The Farm Workers restarted the grape boycott, and soon the growers had millions of boxes of table grapes in cold storage that they couldn't sell.One grower, however, had no problem selling grapes at all. Lionel Steinberg, who honored his contract with the UFW, got top dollar for his grapes because his boxes were stamped with the UFW black-eagle union label. Today, with the prospect that the "5¢ for Fairness" pledge could become a full-fledged boycott, strawberry growers fear that supermarkets will satisfy their customers' desire for strawberries by buying from Coastal Berry while their own berries go unsold. Against that dread possibility, growers have funded an array of spurious workers organizations intended to undermine any claim by the UFW that it really represents strawberry workers.The first such group to surface last year was the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance (SW&FA). The organization was created by the Dolphin Group, a public-relations agency with a long anti-UFW history. The firm was founded in 1974 by political consultant Bill Roberts, who helped manage Ronald Reagan's original campaign for California governor in 1966. It has campaigned against every pro-farm-worker initiative on the California ballot for the past 20 years, and at the height of the grape boycott spawned a bogus workers group to oppose it.This spring, after the agreement between Monsanto and the UFW was announced, the Dolphin Group's SW&FA denounced it as "a proposed sweetheart contract" and proclaimed that it had collected the signatures of 8,000 farmers and farm workers on "a pledge supporting active, equal enforcement of laws that protect employees in the workplace." The SW&FA then circulated its pledge to supermarkets. It has held events modeled after UFW rallies featuring religious figures -- at one press conference turning out a Catholic bishop, a Protestant minister and a Buddhist priest.While the Alliance has been revving up its public-relations campaign, Watsonville growers have hired labor consultants -- more precisely, union busters -- to pressure their workers. From the beginning of last year's season, consultants have called meetings in the field during work hours, gatherings that are termed "captive-audience meetings," since attendance is mandatory.Strawberry picker Jesus Lopez recalls one such meeting in the fields of a Berry Bowl grower, in which a labor consultant told workers that the rancher would plow his fields under if the union won. The consultant reminded workers of the 1995 strike against VCNM, once a large Watsonville grower. Five days after the company's workers voted 332-50 for the UFW, VCNM plowed under the Silacci Ranch, a quarter of its operations. By the end of the season, the rest of its fields were also plowed under, and the company disappeared. Last year, VCNM finally paid its workers $113,000 to settle charges that it had illegally laid them off in retaliation for the union vote. Nevertheless, the plowing of its fields is a story told and retold by anti-UFW campaigners, who use it to illustrate their accusation that the union will cause growers to go out of business.One of VCNM's major partners, however, is still very much in business. Timothy Miyasaka is a major shareholder in the Well-Pict cooler, one of Watsonville's largest strawberry distributors, and his Miyasaka Farms is a major strawberry grower. Well-Pict was the cooler for VCNM. And Well-Pict is at the center of a nebulous group set up to combat the UFW that increasingly looks like a company union -- a bogus workers organization actually controlled by the employer, something that is prohibited under the Agricultural Labor Relations Act. The strate-gy seems to be to deceive workers into thinking the organization is a genuine alternative to the UFW, but to stop short of actually creating a structure that would run afoul of the law.Representing both VCNM and Well-Pict is one of the largest anti-union law firms in the country -- the San Franciscobased Littler, Mendelsohn. The firm has a reputation not only for supplying legal advice to its clients, but offering them help with strategic planning to fight union drives. In 1995-96, Littler attorneys represented a building-cleaning contractor in Sacramento that tried to set up a pseudocompany union to fight a Justice for Janitors organizing effort.The same strategy seems to be surfacing in Watsonville. Joe Sanchez, a labor consultant previously used by other Littler clients, showed up to campaign against the UFW last year. Sergio Soto, a close friend of Sanchez, showed up as well. In 1995, Soto was working for a garbage company in Oakland. But he used to live in Watsonville, he says, and knows lots of strawberry workers who asked him to come down to help fight the union.This constellation of individuals and organizations came together to support the first big public action designed to repudiate the union -- an anti-UFW march in August 1996. "Workers had come to me, saying they didn't want the union," Soto says. "When they asked me what they could do, we came up with the ä idea of the march." Eventually, about 4,000 workers and company personnel were mobilized into Watsonville's streets.The ability of anti-UFW forces to bring out so many people reflects real divisions in the strawberry work force. "In every company," says Efren Barajas, the UFW vice president coordinating the strawberry campaign, "there are a few permanent truck drivers, checkers and assistants who are very close to the foreman and get much better wages and treatment. The growers are using that group."After the march, Soto and his associates organized the Pro-Workers Committee, issuing public statements on behalf of Watsonville's strawberry workers. When the '96 harvest ended, though, the organization underwent a transformation, resurfacing in January as the Agricultural Worker's Committee. Soto went to work for it as a staff member.The committee's officers are four Watsonville workers. Two of them, Guadalupe Sanchez, its president, and Oscar Ortega, its treasurer, are employed by Dutra Farms, a grower for the Well-Pict cooler. Sanchez describes Ag Workers as an educational group, "an organization of workers who want to be free of the UFW." Both Sanchez and Soto specifically deny that the committee is a union. It collects no dues, and they say its activities are financed by sales of caps and T-shirts. Donations, according to Sanchez, also come "from industry, commerce and the public." (Unions are required to file detailed reports with the Department of Labor specifying the source of all income. Ag Workers doesn't have to meet this requirement so long as it doesn't formally claim to represent workers for the purpose of collective bargaining.)Be that as it may, it certainly looks like a company union in its activities in and around the fields. Sanchez admits that in the crews of strawberry pickers, Ag Workers supporters circulate lists for signatures and nominate representatives. Sanchez and Ortega estimate that the process has involved 50 crews, and UFW organizers report the activity at Dutra Farms, Clint Miller Farms, Miyasaka Farms and EKT Farms. All are growers with either the Well-Pict or Driscoll coolers.Soto split with Ag Workers in May, accusing the organization of firing him without paying his salary from January 1 to April 30. While he won't specify the basis for the parting of the ways, one possible reason may be a growing involvement of management personnel with their own views on Ag Workers' potential. When Soto showed up for an Ag Workers meeting on June 12, a Dutra Farms supervisor, Virgilio Yepez, was running the show. Yepez grew agitated over Soto's presence and eventually called the Monterey County Sheriff's Department to have him thrown out. Yepez showed up again with Ag Workers' officers at a meeting at the Resource Center for Non-Violence in Santa Cruz in July. There they confronted UFW organizers making a presentation about the strawberry campaign."Ag Workers isn't supposed to be a union," Soto insists. At previous meetings, he claims, he argued against the idea that it should negotiate with the growers. "Now, anything could happen," he warns. George Schaaf, Well-Pict's chief financial officer, admits, "The industry has had meetings with Ag Workers."If Ag Workers' leaders ever do negotiate with the growers, it will be hard to tell them apart. The organization's literature parrots the growers' mantras. One leaflet claims the organization's purpose is to "fight against any movement that endangers our jobs." Another proclaims, "Strawberries yes, boycott no."Despite the pressure from consultants and foremen, the level of worker fear in Watsonville seems less this year than last, especially since the success of the union at getting activists their jobs back. Not only did Corcoles and her co-workers return to the crews at Gargiulo, but other companies have put union supporters back to work as well. "Little by little, workers are getting rid of the fear of losing their jobs [and] expressing themselves more openly," says UFW president Rodriguez.At a June meeting in Watsonville, the union distributed checks for over $238,000 in increased retirement benefits to almost 300 retirees living on the Central Coast -- pensioners who helped build the union decades ago. Rodriguez, UFW vice president and co-founder Dolores Huerta and other leaders personally handed out the checks. At one point during the gathering, they asked how many had participated in the union's big strikes years ago and had gone on the boycott to cities around the country. Almost every retiree raised his or her hand.Clearly, this display of union power was aimed at convincing Watsonville's unorganized workers that onetime UFW activists can be tomorrow's UFW beneficiaries. This year and next, these workers will decide whether the UFW or a company union best represents their interests. To make this decision, Rodriguez says, they have to be active participants in the organizing process. "For many folks, this is new. They've never had any voice before in deciding what changes should take place. Now workers have to develop their own leadership" -- not just for this campaign, but for the union in a time of renewal.