Letter from the US: 30,000 march for strawberry workers
30,000 march for strawberry workers
By Caroline Lund
WATSONVILLE, California — A massive march here on April 13 launched the largest union organising drive taking place in the United States today. Energy and hope were in the air. Thirty thousand supporters of the United Farm Workers Union (UFWU) took over this city of 32,000 about 110 kilometres south of San Francisco. The goal: to organise the 20,000 strawberry pickers in California, who pick 80% of the country's strawberries.
Thousands of the UFWU's red-and-black flags waved, and chants filled the air as contingent after contingent of union members from every conceivable occupation filed through the streets. Supporters sat on the steps of the small houses along the way and cheered us on.
A tiny group of right-wingers, protected by police, stood on one corner with signs saying "Close the Border". Marchers responded with the chant: "Somos un pueblo, sin fronteras." (We are one people, with no borders.)
Watsonville is symptomatic of the situation of strawberry pickers. Unemployment is 26%. Housing is overcrowded. Diseases such as diabetes abound. Chiropractor offices are plentiful, reflecting the prevalence of back problems from bending down to get the strawberries. Many strawberry workers are undocumented Mexicans.
Strawberry workers earn less than any other agricultural workers except tree-crop pickers. The average wage (from piecework, usually) is US$6.29 an hour. In real terms, this represents a 20% drop in pay from 20 years ago.
There are 270 growers in the Pajaro and Salinas valleys, which are the centres of strawberry production. The industry is dominated, however, by several huge growers and especially by eight "cooler" companies, which refrigerate the berries, handle distribution, set prices and lend money to growers. Examples are Well-Pict, Driscoll, and Gargiulo Farms (owned by the chemical corporation Monsanto).
The strawberry campaign was launched a year ago by the UFWU, following a series of successes by the union. From a high point of 80,000 members, the UFWU had shrunk to about 20,000 in 1993, when its cherished leader Cesar Chavez died. Since the election of Arturo Rodriguez as president three years ago, the UFWU has won 14 union recognition elections, 12 contracts and 6000 new members. The most recent victories were in the rose and mushroom industries.
The UFWU presently has no members in the strawberry industry. In 1989, 1994 and 1995, the UFWU won union recognition votes at three farms, but owners responded by plowing under the crop and going out of business rather than recognise the union.
Given the atmosphere of intimidation, harassment and firings of union supporters by growers, the UFWU has decided not to pursue union votes at individual farms at present. The union is taking an industry-wide approach, combining organising in the fields with a nationwide campaign to win public support organised with the AFL-CIO.
Following the April 13 march, more than 100 organisers fanned out into fields and communities around Watsonville, dozens of them "loaned" by other unions for three weeks or more.
A centerpiece of the community-oriented campaign is the "five cents for fairness" slogan. Between 1985 and 1995, the share of the consumer dollar spent on strawberries that went to the worker fell from 17.5 cents to 9.2 cents. This means that only a 5 cent rise in the price of strawberries could — if passed on to the worker — raise wages by 50%.
The UFWU is asking consumers to sign pledge cards saying they would be willing to pay 5 cents more for strawberries if that would raise the pay of the workers. But UFWU spokespeople say they are not asking supermarkets to raise strawberry prices by 5 cents. The union says it is simply using this statistic to show that a big wage increase for these workers would not cost much.
This is a confusing slogan, however, since it puts the burden of strawberry workers' welfare onto consumers, rather than putting the fire on the big growers and cooler companies, which are reaping big profits.
The union and AFL-CIO Central Labor Council activists are asking supermarkets to sign a pledge supporting a living wage for strawberry workers, job security, health insurance, clean drinking water and bathrooms and an end to sexual harassment. So far 17 supermarket chains have signed on.
The UFWU is not now calling for a boycott of strawberries. But the supermarket campaign is designed to put in place a network of support that could launch a boycott if the growers respond by making all-out war on the UFWU.
Given the huge stakes in this fight, it is doubtful that the "good will" of any number of supermarkets will be sufficient to win. Organising in the fields will be key.
Among the marchers in Watsonville April 13 were mushroom workers Antonio Sandoval and Jose Gomez, who now have a UFWU contract. "Before the union, we didn't have anything", said Sandoval. "We didn't have benefits for our families, we didn't have vacation, we didn't have respect."
"If we take away the fear, [organising] will be easy", said Juvencio Andrade, a picker from Salinas, to the Hayward Daily Review. That is what the nationwide AFL-CIO strawberry campaign is designed to do, by turning the public climate against grower abuses.
Arturo Rodriguez is known for emphasising organising in the fields as the bedrock for the broader public-sympathy campaign. He notes that it took 20 years for the union to win contracts for lettuce workers in Salinas Valley, and says the UFWU will be just as tenacious in the strawberry workers' campaign.