State of the Union

United Farm Workers turn up heat on North Bay companies

By R. V. Scheide

As members of the United Farm Workers union prepare for a week of celebrations centered on Cesar Chavez Day, this Wednesday, March 31, the union continues to make strides both locally and nationally in the ongoing battle to better the wages and working conditions of agricultural workers.

Chavez, who passed away in 1993, would have turned 77 on March 31. He is internationally renowned for founding the first successful farm labor organization in 1962. Robert Kennedy called Chavez “one of the heroic figures of our times.”

Locally, the UFW is negotiating contracts with two major Sonoma County employers, Gallo of Sonoma and the Redwood Empire lumber company. The negotiations have stalled repeatedly, the UFW says, thanks to the continued union-busting tactics used by both employers. Meanwhile, on the national front, UFW president Arturo Rodriguez has called on members of the House and the Senate to pass the AgJobs bill, which will grant permanent citizenship to undocumented workers who stay in the country and continue to work in agriculture.

“Can we say to the world this is the land of freedom except for undocumented immigrants?” Rodriguez said at a Washington, D.C., press conference March 24. “To those who say we shouldn’t consider or cooperate with hard-working, tax-paying undocumented immigrants, that they are criminals and trespassers, I say to you: Why do you continue to buy most fresh fruits and vegetables? They come to your tables through the skill and toil of undocumented farm workers.”

The UFW’s struggle to unionize Gallo of Sonoma has been simmering for more than a decade, after wine-grape workers voted for UFW representation in 1994. Since then, Gallo has frustrated the UFW’s efforts by refusing to extend benefits to farm-labor contractors. Since 1994, the company’s use of such workers has increased from 60 percent to 80 percent of the workforce.

Last November, more than 400 wine country workers and supporters joined a UFW march in Santa Rosa to demand that Gallo make good on its promise to provide health benefits to contracted farm laborers. In December, a state judge ruled that Gallo violated state law when it tried to decertify the union last year. In January the UFW filed new charges against the company, alleging that a whistleblower had been fired because of his union activities.

Gallo of Sonoma spokesman John Segale countered that both the current contract and the contract on the table offer health benefits to contract laborers hired as full-time employees by the company.

Increasingly, undocumented immigrants have been entering the workforce in fields that were once dominated by native-born or naturalized laborers, such as the construction industry. Because these workers are paid less and often receive no benefits, employers can cut costs substantially by hiring them.

Two years ago, employees at the Redwood Empire’s sawmills in Asti decided they’d had enough. After the company denied them the accustomed 3 percent annual cost-of-living adjustment and cut some of their benefits, they organized a work stoppage and went looking for union representation.

“The UFW is spreading into other industries,” says Vanessa Rhodes, Santa Rosa-based UFW contract administrator. “When those Asti workers organized the work stoppage, they walked out and came to the UFW. Normally, these situations come about because employees are in dire need. They themselves decide they want a union.”

Eventually, Redwood Empire granted the cost-of-living raise and reinstated benefits, hoping, the UFW says, to persuade employees that a union was unnecessary. But in February 2003, employees voted to have wage increases and benefits secured through a contract negotiated by the UFW.

Since then, according to Rhodes, Redwood Empire has dug its feet in on contract negotiations, hoping to force a new election in 2005. Rhodes says that some workers who have supported the union have been targeted by Redwood Empire management, violating the National Labor Relations Board’s requirements for good-faith bargaining.

One such employee, Irma Sanchez of Cloverdale, was fired for allegedly going to the bathroom too often. Co-workers allege that her firing was pure retaliation. Other employees are afraid to testify about conditions at Redwood Empire facilities, which reportedly include poor sanitation in the bathrooms and the kitchen, because they fear for their jobs.

Neither Redwood Empire nor its parent company, San Jose-based Pacific States Industries, would comment for this story.

Rhodes says that negotiating the contract with Gallo is crucial and will be one of the major themes in this year’s Cesar Chavez Day march and rally for legalization. “If we can win this with Gallo, all the other contracts will follow suit,” she says enthusiastically before switching to a more somber tone. “And if we lose . . . all the contracts will follow suit.”

The Cesar Chavez Day march is scheduled for Sunday, April 4, at 10am, beginning at 665 Sebastopol Road (the old Albertson’s parking lot) and ending with a rally at Court House Square at the corner of Fourth Street and Mendocino Avenue, Santa Rosa.

From the March 31-April 6, 2004 issue of the North Bay Bohemian.

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