HIGH HOPES FOR FARMWORKERS
By Dick Meister
SLOWLY BUT SURELY, the United Farm Workers Union has been scoring major
victories in its struggle to help win decent working and living conditions
for those who harvest our food.
The UFW most recently won the right to represent workers in the Northern
California fields of the country's largest strawberry grower. That's
Coastal Berry, which has more than 1600 employees in Northern and Southern
The employees' vote to be represented by the UFW was a sure sign that
the union is finally winning the drive to unionize California's $800
million-a-year strawberry industry that has preoccupied the UFW and its many
supporters nationwide for nearly seven years.
Few UFW drives have been more ambitious or more important. Victory
could very well lead to a breakthrough comparable to the winning of union
rights from California's grape growers that marked the UFW's first major
success three decades ago.
The union won the right to represent Coastal Berry's Southern California
workers three years ago, but lost out to a bogus company-dominated union in
a representation election at the firm's Northern California facility. Given
a chance late last year to vote again, the Northern California workers opted
for representation by the UFW, whose negotiations with Coastal Berry have
gained the Southern California workers much better conditions than those in
The union is currently negotiating a contract for the Northern
California employees that is certain to at least match the terms of the
precedent-setting Southern California contract. And those are by far the
best terms ever won by farmworkers.
The contract provides pay of up to $12 an hour, a half-dozen paid
holidays, paid vacations, employer-financed medical and dental insurance and
other benefits that also cover workers' dependents -- plus formal grievance
procedures and a seniority system.
The contrast with how the vast majority of farmworkers are treated is
stunning. Most are mired in poverty, their pay and working and living
conditions a national disgrace.
Strawberry pickers, Mexicans and Mexican Americans for the most part,
do some of the roughest and most dangerous work of all. Yet they are paid
less than $10,000 a year and get few, if any, fringe benefits. They're
fortunate if they have fresh drinking water and field toilets at work. They
have no job security and almost no protection against the arbitrary acts of
They work bent in half, picking the strawberries by hand, since the
fruit is too fragile to be harvested except by stooping workers who move
swiftly along narrow furrows a foot deep in water, bending to ground level
to snatch up a berry, then another and another. The workers scarcely pause
to straighten. Back ailments are common, but health insurance coverage
They do that for as many as 12 hours a day. After that, it's home to a
shack or tiny apartment or motel room, or to a house shared by two or three
families or by a half-dozen or more single men. Some workers don't even
have that: They sleep in tents or out in the open, under trees.
Workers who fall ill -- and many do because of the extraordinarily heavy
use of pesticides by strawberry growers -- get little or no help from their
employers or the government.
In addition to winning union protections for growing numbers of the
strawberry pickers, the UFW has waged new and effective organizing campaigns
among workers in several other crops.
Over the past few years the union has won contracts covering, among
others, more than half of California's rose growers; most of the state's
mushroom growers; one of its largest lettuce growers; vineyard workers at
Washington state's largest winery, and employees of Florida's largest
The UFW also has won legislation to force California growers to abandon
stalling tactics that many have used to avoid reaching contract agreements
with workers who vote for union representation. The new law gives growers
seven months to reach an agreement or have an arbitrator draft one.
That's but one of many signs that some of our most deserving workers are
finally winning the decent treatment that's been denied them far far too
Copyright c 2003 Dick Meister, co-author of "A Long Time Coming: The
Struggle to Unionize America's Farm Workers" (Macmillan).