“In the strawberries, one dies alone.”
In April, 1993 Cesar Chavez died. In October, 1995, John Sweeney became the President of the AFL-CIO. Although the Arturo Rodriguez-led UFW was a minor supporter of Sweeney at the convention that elected him, nothing connected Cesar’s death to Sweeney’s election. But without the conjunction of those two events, there would have been no UFW/AFL-CIO strawberry campaign. Its very existence was rooted in happenstance. That should not surprise anyone interested in politics. Machiavelli claimed that half of politics was luck, or as he called it, fortuna. In the case of the strawberry campaign, at first it seemed like good luck, but by the end, for those who hoped for UFW and AFL-CIO renewal, it was surely bad.
In her eulogy at Cesar’s funeral, Dolores Huerta declared that Cesar died so that the UFW might live. It is a dubious claim—there is no indication of a Chavez suicide—but her meaning was not lost on many of the mourners. Under Cesar’s direction, the UFW had backed off organizing farm workers in the late 1970s and early 1980s, had lost most of its contracts by the mid-80s, and was, at the time of his death, no longer a force in the fields but rather a cross between a farm worker advocacy group and a mid-sized family business. As long as Chavez was alive that was not likely to change. Once he was gone, the UFW was free to make an effort to get back in the fields again.
They began, as they had to, by trying to improve their reputation among undocumented workers. Originally a union of mostly Mexican-American grape pickers, they had officially opposed “illegals” in the fields before 1975, championing the use of the Border Patrol against them and even setting up their own patrol on the Arizona border for a few months in 1974. That policy changed in 1975 with the passage of the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act (ALRA), which made all farm workers, including the undocumented, eligible to vote in farm worker elections. But the changed policy never completely undid the original damage, and since the leadership of the union in the early 1990s continued to be Mexican-American and there were, by then, few Mexican farm workers left in the union, the UFW was considered by many farm workers, a “pocho” (slang used by Mexicans to describe Mexican-Americans) organization.
Thus, the UFW’s first step back into the fields was to take a leadership role against Proposition 187, the 1994 California initiative that denied State benefits to the undocumented and their children. Having made their new sympathy for the undocumented clear, the union won a new contract in the Central Valley roses, fought a victorious campaign in the mushrooms, and even signed a vegetable contract with their old nemesis, Bruce Church Inc. (although on close inspection the contract seemed to cover only a small percentage of Bruce Church workers). In 1995, the UFW leadership was lathered up, in the starting gate, and ready to race.
John Sweeney was also ready to go. Having won the AFL-CIO presidency with a rousing pledge to replace the conservative ways of the old bureaucracy with a new aggressive campaign to organize the unorganized, he was looking for an easy early victory. The UFW seemed to promise one. Relying on Rodriguez’s account of UFW popularity in the fields, and with no alternative assessment available, he went all in, put other organizing on hold, and committed his troops to what promised to be an opening victory for the New Voice coalition. As Gilbert Mireles, author of a pretty good (but also the only) book on the campaign, puts it: “It was almost inconceivable [to the strategists at the top] that workers would not be in favor of the union.”
The Not So Hot Shop
Working in the strawberries is not easy, even by farm worker standards. It is not only that people are bent over all day, or down on their knees, or squatting on their haunches. A lot of farm work is like that, and it makes people old in a hurry, and sooner or later ruins most backs. But what makes strawberry picking especially difficult is that people are paid individually according to how much they pick, rather than by the hour or collectively according to how much the whole crew picks. “En la fresa uno muere solo”, a friend of mine once told me, “in the strawberries, one dies alone.” My friend, a celery cutter who worked alongside his wife in the strawberries every year before the celery season began, was contrasting the work of a berry crew with the work of a piece rate vegetable crew. In the vegetables the crew is paid for every box it cuts and packs, and the workers divide the pay equally among themselves. Their work is a joint, collective effort. The crews are well organized, and stay together for years. These crews, known for their intense internal solidarity, were the heart of UFW strength in the 1970s. In contrast the strawberry crews are barely crews at all, as it is every picker for her or himself, and often there is competition over who gets the good rows. Primarily as a consequence of this relative lack of internal solidarity in the structure of the crews, the UFW, even at its height, could never maintain contracts among strawberry workers. But in 1996, Rodriguez and Sweeny, and the people around them, chose to make strawberries the defining fight in the UFW’s attempt to re-enter the fields.
They thought it was a hot shop. They got that idea towards the end of the 1995 strawberry season. Most of the workers at a medium-sized ranch, VCNM farms, had walked out of the strawberry fields in protest against the fact that they were being paid below the industry standard and because of their displeasure with a particularly hateful foreman. They immediately won their wage increase, and with UFW help, they filed for a representation election. Unopposed, the UFW won that election 332 to 50. Ignoring the history of trouble that the UFW had had holding on to strawberry contracts, AFL-CIO and UFW organizers quickly decided that strawberry workers were eager for organization. And besides, strawberries were much like grapes, a specialty crop that would be relatively easy to boycott, unlike the staple lettuce, which had proved hard to boycott back in the UFW’s days of power and influence. Moreover, the institutional wisdom of the UFW was that boycotts and the threats of boycotts—and not the power of the workers in the fields— had been the key to the UFW’s early success.
Even in retrospect, it doesn’t seem like such a terribly wrong decision. Except that it reflected a relative ignorance about the character of farm worker struggle. During the harvest season, when the growers are vulnerable, farm workers will often engage in slow downs, or short walk-outs (paros), to try to increase their wages or in protest against some grossly bad working conditions. Especially in crops that have to be picked quickly when they are ripe (like strawberries) a short walk-out can put enormous pressure on the grower (whose entire investment is tied up in a successful, timely harvest) and often win immediate concessions. But win or lose, the workers usually go back to work quickly. These short protests do not mean that workers can maintain their commitment over long periods of time. In the fields, they are frequent and brief. They are far different from a walkout or protest in a factory which happens with much less frequency but usually is capable of lasting a longer period of time, and is often an indication of a great willingness to organize. The UFW organizers, with little recent experience in the fields, and the AFL-CIO strategists with almost no understanding of the dynamics of farm worker struggle, mistook a relatively common farm worker paro, and an unopposed election victory to mean much more than it did.
Many of the problems that followed were inherent in the structure of strawberry production, another reason that the UFW had had trouble in the berries before. Agribusiness is not a single industry, it is a string of mini-industries, and strawberries have their own special story. They demand great care; people around Watsonville say strawberry production is more like horticulture than agriculture, and therefore most strawberry farms are relatively small. On these farms the owner or manager directly supervises the work to ensure, as far as possible, high production and good berries. These small farmers—a majority of whom are Mexican and usually ex-pickers, themselves—hire their own workers, often employing relatives or people who came from the same small town that the boss came from in rural Mexico. This gives the farmers considerable influence among their workers, but at the same time, the small farmers have very little power within the industry. Power lies in the hands of the people who own the coolers and market the berries. A strawberry is wasted (that is, unmarketable) unless it gets to a cooler soon after it is picked, and so the owners and managers of the coolers have become the directors of the whole production process. (Coolers are multi-million dollar operations and there are about a dozen of them in the Pajaro and northern Salinas Valleys.) The cooler owners usually secure loans for the small growers, often lease them land, and always provide them with essential technical support. They then charge the growers for cooling the berries, shipping them, and selling them. So, no surprise, small growers teeter on the verge of bankruptcy, while the cooler operators keep getting rich.
How this system works against union organizing was demonstrated shortly after the UFW election victory at VCNM farms. Five days after the election, the grower ploughed under about a fourth of his acreage, then stonewalled the obligatory negotiations with the union, and declared bankruptcy. All the workers lost their jobs. The very next year the land was leased to another grower who hired a whole new work force. Hundreds of workers who had voted to be represented by the UFW had to find work at other companies, where some of the most militant were blacklisted. Among the Pajaro Valley’s several thousand strawberry pickers, word travelled fast.
Nevertheless, in 1996, in the season following the VCNM paro and vote, the UFW proceeded on the assumption that they were working in a hot shop. Forty organizers, their wages and expenses paid by the AFL-CIO, went into the fields in what union insiders called a “blitz campaign” arguing that if everyone signed up in the union then the companies couldn’t plough under all of the fields. They hoped to win a bunch of union elections quickly.
It was not to be. The cooler operators and the big growers, fearful of a UFW victory and a return of the high wages and worker control over production typical of the UFW’s golden years in the 1970s, went on a counter-attack. They funded a bogus anti-UFW workers group, they raised wages and improved working conditions, and, most effectively, they hired some of the ex-VCNM workers as “labor consultants” and sent them into the fields to tell other workers how they had voted for the UFW and lost their jobs. By the end of the 1996, despite a massive effort by the UFW, the union was unable to get enough support on any farm to file for a representation election.
Talk of the hot shop ceased.
The AFL-CIO Buys the Company
While organizing was going badly in the strawberries, the UFW was doing very well at what it had been doing ever since they were pushed out of the fields in the mid 1980s: organizing among liberal supporters and Democratic Party politicians. Although they were unable to launch a strawberry boycott—the ALRA forbid boycotts of growers where the union had not already won a representation election—they did manage to generate enough pressure to win statements of support from 14 supermarket chains (including Lucky’s and Ralphs), various State Legislatures, and a few California City Councils. Favorable stories in major publications focused on the poverty of strawberry workers and welcomed a UFW return to the fields. Robert Kennedy’s son, Joseph P. Kennedy, visited the strawberry fields amidst nostalgic accounts of his father’s support for the UFW 31 years before.
But their greatest success was with the notorious Monsanto corporation, owners of one of the larger strawberry companies in the Pajaro Valley, large enough to own its own cooler. Monsanto, infamous for its genetic engineering of staple crops like corn and for the production and a wide selection of dangerous agricultural chemicals, was highly vulnerable to an AFL-CIO style corporate campaign. In a series of high level negotiations between Sweeney, Rodriguez, and Monsanto CEO Robert Shapiro, with direct intervention in support of the UFW by Vice President Al Gore, House Minority Leader Richard Gephardt, and veteran Democratic Party fixer, Mickey Kantor, Shapiro agreed to sell the company to David Gladstone and Landon Butler, whose regular business—investing AFL-CIO pension funds—was completely dependent on the good will of John Sweeney. (The Wall Street Journal reported that Monsanto loaned the money to buy the company to Gladstone and Butler, so that it was actually a silent partner in the new outfit.)
Gladstone (Butler quickly dropped out) changed the name of the company to Coastal Berry, signed a neutrality agreement with the UFW, visited his Watsonville strawberry fields, and both personally and on official company stationery informed his workers that they were free to vote for any union they wanted and that the company would not interfere in any way. Amidst much quiet celebration among UFW and AFL-CIO officials, UFW organizers turned all their attention on the 1,200 Coastal Berry workers. Finally, a year a half into the campaign victory seemed near.
Very soon a new problem surfaced. Although the AFL-CIO could buy the company, they could not buy the company’s supervisors and foremen, the people who managed the picking and packing in the fields. Such people were deeply threatened by a possible UFW victory, as their control over hiring and firing would be either completely eliminated or highly limited by a UFW contract. Supervisors of production, deeply knowledgeable about the intricacies of strawberry horticulture, they had significant power in the fields, independent of upper management. They augmented that power through their ability to assign people to a small number of privileged jobs, like driving the trucks between coolers and fields, or checking the finished work of the pickers.
Moreover, through their ability to hire and fire they also had great influence among the pickers, themselves. Very often a supervisor or foreman would hire his relatives or people who came from his same Mexican hometown, and these groups of workers formed tight cliques within the larger crews. Such groups sometimes owed even more than their jobs to their foremen or supervisors. On occasion a foreman had arranged for them to be smuggled across the border, and even loaned them money to pay the coyote. Familiar with Watsonville, the foremen knew where the new arrivals could find places to rent, and sometimes a foreman was not only the boss but the landlord. Workers dependent in so many ways often could be mobilized against the UFW, and soon after the Coastal Berry campaign began it became clear to UFW organizers that the workforce was badly divided.
David Gladstone couldn’t do anything about it. He knew nothing about agriculture and had to hire someone from the industry to run the company. The man he hired, Dave Smith, came from the Dole Corporation with an anti-UFW point of view, which almost anyone who knew enough about agriculture to run the business would have shared. Smith issued a series of mixed messages that served to enlarge the power of the supervisors and foremen. What followed was a kind of Marx Brothers movie of dispute and division. Fist fights in the fields. Competing paros between anti-UFW forces and UFW supporters: one day the truck drivers would walk out and thereby halt production; the next day UFW workers would walk out and production would also stop. Supervisors would fire workers; Gladstone would have them rehired. Sweeney unable to understand why Gladstone couldn’t follow through on his pledge to keep the company neutral threatened to take away Gladstone’s union pension business. Other growers, delighted by all the problems, and even financing some of the UFW opposition inside the company, sued Gladstone for collusion with the union. Gladstone spun like a top. He joined the UFW in appeals to the ALRB one day, and refused to discipline anti-UFW workers who had attacked UFW loyalists the next.
In the midst of the turmoil the contras established their own union, and filed for an election. The UFW, citing the pressure in the fields, refused to participate. The contra union, called El Comité, won the July, 1988 election 523 for the Comité against 410 for no union. Many legal challenges followed. There were disputes about the inclusion in the election of off-season Coastal Berry workers in Oxnard. Eventually, during the 1999 season, there were two other elections with both the Comité and the UFW on the ballot. The Comité won both of them: the first 646 to 577 with 79 ballots for no union; the second 725 for the Comité and 616 for the UFW. A year later, March, 2000, a judge agreed to separate the Oxnard division of Coastal Berry from the Watsonville division, and awarded the UFW representation rights in Oxnard (where the union had won the vote) while giving the Comité representation rights in the bigger Watsonville division. It didn’t much matter. The UFW had been defeated. The AFL-CIO pulled out. The Strawberry Campaign was over.
Who Were the Outsiders and Who Were the Locals?
The contra victory was not all muscle and bully-boys. They had one argument that seemed to take hold among many strawberry workers. They claimed that the UFW was a group of outsiders with little understanding of the actual situation in the fields, and interests quite apart from the interests of ordinary workers. One of the most difficult problems for the UFW and the AFL-CIO was that the more money and people they threw into the campaign, the more they tended to reinforce this contention of the contras. In April, 1997, when thirty-five thousand people marched in support of the UFW through this town of some fifty thousand people it was mighty impressive. But the overwhelming majority of those thirty-five thousand were people from out of town, and what was impressed upon the locals was not only the strength of UFW support, but the union’s position as outsiders in the community. When the AFL-CIO paid for forty organizers to come to town, and spent about $100,000 a month on the campaign (about $12 million in all) they became the biggest new business in the area, a business that was run by outsiders, by city folk, who had little understanding of this rural place. When the 1996 union summer program brought Chicano college students to Watsonville, it deepened the workers’ belief that the UFW was a Mexican-American organization that had little understanding or sympathy for the overwhelmingly Mexican strawberry workers. In contrast, said the contras, we live and work right here, we are your neighbors and relatives who have your interests at heart. It was to a large extent a phony argument, but it convinced a lot of people.
What were Sweeney and Rodriguez to do? The more they threw into the campaign the more they appeared to be outsiders. It is all so sad. Strawberry workers would have been better off if the campaign would have won. Workers throughout the USA would have benefited if the New Voices organizing drive had not bogged down in the fields of Watsonville. The opportunity was there. Chavez was gone; Artie Rodriguez honestly wanted to bring the union back into the fields. But he couldn’t overcome the burden of the union’s history and culture. Sure, many older workers remembered the UFW’s golden years, and wanted to bring the union back. Many other workers understood the need for a union, and were not fooled by the appeals of the contras, who they could see were led by supervisors and foremen. But the UFW had been out of the fields too long and were not sensitive to the differences between workers in different crops. They did not have a big enough group of local supporters in the fields, and did not have the democratic structure and culture necessary to build such a group. They had been damaged by the blitz campaign. For too long they had spent their time learning the ways of politicians in Sacramento and Washington, and not enough time listening to workers in the fields.
One last story
In the midst of the campaign, I was visited by a UFW staffer who had lived in the union center at La Paz for many years. She wanted to see if I would organize a house meeting. In the midst of the conversation I told my visitor that I hoped that the union won and I would do what I could, but I couldn’t whole-heartedly support the union until they had locals.
“Locals, what do you mean?” she asked.
“You know, where the workers who are covered by union contracts can vote for their own officials, who have control over most of their local dues, and have a certain amount of independence within the union.”, I said
“Oh, that might be a good idea, but the workers aren’t ready for that,” she answered.
Now, in 2015, the union still doesn’t have locals. Every official and staffer in the union is appointed. No farm worker can be elected into a union position. Add up the years. The UFWOC organizing committee was established in 1966. The union was granted a charter as an independent union in 1972. It is now 43 years later. When will the workers be ready?