Members and supporters of United Farm Workers march across bridge in
Modesto during 10-day, 150-mile march
María Ramírez and Gonzalo Picazo arrived here with a busload of workers from Salinas and Watsonville, a longtime center of union struggles. The two work at D’Arrigo Brothers in Salinas. The 1,400 workers at this vegetable company voted for the union in 1975 but the owner has refused to sign a contract since 1987.
"This means that there is no raise," Ramírez said. "They pay overtime only after a 10-hour day and six-day week. Everything is expensive. We need to eat. It’s important that the governor sign this bill. That’s why we are marching," said Ramírez, who works a job packaging lettuce.
"The wages are low compared to the cost of living. They made themselves rich thanks to farm workers," added Picazo.
Other workers arriving on the bus work at the strawberry grower Coastal Berry. After a hard-fought organizing drive, workers lost the vote for the UFW in 1999 as the company mounted a campaign of threats and intimidation against union supporters. Coastal Berry also started a company union in order to get rid of the UFW, explained Francisco Cerritos. "But now there is a lot of interest" for a real union among the 1,200 workers now employed with the company.
Jésus Corona, who is an organizer for the UFW, added that "the vote was lost because of the violence, firings, blackmail, and lies of the company. But now more people are coming to talk to the union. It’s not only about wages but about respect and dignity."
Arcadio Pasos came with co-workers from Ventura county in southern California. He works at Pictsweet Mushroom Farms, where workers are also fighting for a contract. They have initiated a campaign to encourage people to boycott the company’s mushrooms until it signs a union contract, which they have been fighting for since 1987.
Francisco García has says this is his third march with the union. In the 1950s he traveled from Mexico and labored in the fields under the U.S. government’s "bracero" program. "I walked in 1966, in 1994, and I hope to finish this one," said García who is now in his 70s.
As part of the movement to build the union, he has been on strike several times and campaigned to extend a grape boycott the union organized to put pressure on the growers to improve the working conditions. "With the union we won unemployment and disabilities benefits," García said. "The struggle is big, and it doesn’t end."
At its height, the union had 100,000 members, now it has 27,000. Some half a million workers are employed in the fields of California’s growers.
A group of workers from the Charles Krug Winnery in Napa Valley joined the march. "The union has been there for 20 years," said Jorge De Haro. "But sometimes the company waits three or even eight years before they sign the contract. During that time there is no raise." There are only three grapes companies that have a union in the Napa Valley, De Haro explained.
Housing is a serious problems farm workers are facing. "We make $1,200 per month and the rent is $1,000 per month," he said. "This is why we have to live two or three families together." Another worker from Salinas said he lives with 20 men in a house.
Growers oppose binding arbitration bill
The National Labor Relations Act, adopted by the U.S. Congress in the 1930s as a concession to the big labor struggles of that decade, allows workers to bargain collectively with employers; but this federal legislation does not apply to farm workers.
Struggles by farm workers in California forced the state to adopt legislation recognizing bargaining rights for farm workers with the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975. But there is no remedy for the union if the employer refused to negotiate. For example, the UFW has won 428 elections in the past 27 years but employers at only 185 of these workplaces have ever signed a contract. The union argues the legislation, Senate Bill 1736, will put pressure on the employers to come to agreements with the union.
Manuel Cunhe, president of the Nisei Farmers League, an organization of 1,000 growers based in Fresno, told the press that the legislation would "destroy California’s economy because all the services that rely on agriculture will dry up."
The California Farm Bureau Federation says the new bill is not needed because the 1975 law already provides remedies in case of an impasse in negotiations. Tom Nassif of the Western Growers Association, whose 3,500 members own farms on which 90 percent of California’s vegetables are grown, said the measure would increase prices. "It’s going to raise the cost of food to the consumer because," he said, "the agricultural community cannot bear all these increases in costs."
Answering this campaign by the growers against the bill, UFW organizer Jésus Corona said the "the growers can’t tell the truth to the public; it would come out of their pockets. The bosses also want to keep their power of being able to fire and discipline workers."
UFW president Arturo Rodríguez and union co-foundervice president Dolores Huerta are leading the march, which is being greeted with support along the way.
Several high school and college students have joined the march. Juan Carlos, a junior at Turlock high school, said he is there "because it’s the right thing to do. People in the fields earned the right to get a union contract."
Ismael and Teresa have jobs at a company in Salinas where workers recently began signing union cards. They are helping to win co-workers to become part of the organizing drive.
William Kalman, the Socialist Workers candidate for lieutenant governor of California, said he joined the march to "support the extension to workers in the countryside the minimal safeguards and protection that unionized workers in the city have won. The Socialist Workers campaign backs farmworker organizing as part of the fight to win union wages, full unemployment benefits, workers’ compensation and social security, decent housing, and protection from pesticides and other on-the-job hazards."
Several members of the Service Employees International Union, Teamsters, and United Food and Commercial Workers joined the action.
UFW president Rodríguez announced to the crowd that the union is expecting 150 buses to converge on Sacramento from all over California August 25. He invited all of the participants to come to the capital that day with co-workers and friends.
Rollande Girard is a sewing machine operator in San Francisco. Bill Kalman contributed to this article.
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