Calif. Fresh Express workers walk out, win wage raise

By Betsey Stone
July 15, 2019

SALINAS, Calif. — Some 200 workers walked off the job here June 11 at Fresh Express, a large fruit and vegetable processing plant, after the company abruptly cancelled contract negotiations with Local 5 of the United Food and Commercial Workers union, set for the next day.

The workers were advised by union officials to go back to work, citing a no-strike clause included in the extension of their old contract. This was met with a resounding, “No!”

The contract covering over 500 workers expired at the end of last year. Workers were demanding a $3 an hour wage increase over three years, “no” to the company’s demand to double their medical insurance costs and that unsafe conditions be ended.

“If they crucify me for this, it doesn’t matter,” striker David Rangel, a loader at Fresh Express for 23 years, told the Salinas Californian while striking workers were gathered outside the plant. “This company has a lot of money. But we’ve been negotiating for seven and a half months and there has been nothing for us. We have unsafe conditions at work. Forklifts for loading the product are 10 years old and don’t have parts.”

Two hours into the strike Fresh Express managers asked to resume negotiations and agreed to a two-year contract with a $1 an hour yearly wage increase retroactive to January. The union reports that all the workers’ key issues were addressed.

“Workers outside the plant overwhelmingly approved the deal by a voice vote and returned to the job,” the union statement said.

The Salinas Valley is known for the large quantities of berries and vegetables grown here. Two years earlier, workers at nearby Taylor Farms, another big processing plant, walked out and rapidly won a $1.50 an hour raise and another $1 the following January. The initiative came from the workers themselves, but once the strike was underway Teamster union officials joined with workers to negotiate the pay hike.

Joel Britton, Socialist Workers Party candidate for mayor of San Francisco, led a team of supporters to knock on workers’ doors here June 30. Workers remembered the Taylor Farms strike and told Britton they supported the Fresh Express walkout.

Jorge, 42, who declined to give his last name, said he had worked at Fresh Express for a few months and now works at another food processing plant. “Sincerely, the equipment at Fresh Express was not in good condition, it was unsafe.” he said.

“Safe working conditions and other gains can only be won when we engage in actions like the Fresh Express workers did with their strike,” Britton said.