Calif. almond workers demand a voice at work

For the last year and a half, efforts by over 600 almond workers at Blue Diamond Growers’ Sacramento plant to join Local 17 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU) and gain the respect, raises and benefits they deserve have been stonewalled by what the company itself calls “an aggressive union avoidance campaign.”

Many of the 610 production and maintenance workers — down from nearly 1,600 a decade and a half ago — say that, between sharp rises in their health care costs and small pay hikes, they’ve lost ground since 1990.

During the same period, the company, which operates the world’s largest almond processing plant, has seen almond prices rise as production has gone up. California produces 80 percent of the world’s almonds, and BDG processes about one-third of the state’s crop. About half the workers are Latino, about 10 percent are African American, and 20 percent are from Asian countries including India and Pakistan. Almost half are women.

ILWU International Representative Agustin Ramirez said solidarity actions are growing around the country and internationally. Ramirez said a Halloween “Howl for Justice for Blue Diamond Workers” featured actions in seven U.S. cities as well as an Internet campaign with thousands of hits to the company’s web site, shutting it down. During a Nov. 21 International Day of Action, union supporters contacted BDG distributors and customers in India, South Korea, Japan, Spain, France, the Netherlands and the United Kingdom, among other nations.

“We’re continuing to keep in contact with workers, especially dockers, in other countries, and we’re making dock workers in Oakland, Houston and Savannah — major ports for almond shipping — aware of the situation,” he said.

The BDG plant, a cooperative serving some 3,500 member almond farmers in the Central Valley, has been in Sacramento since 1910. It has never been unionized.

Besides conducting individual and small group meetings where workers were questioned about union support and bombarded with anti-union propaganda and threats, including threats to close the plant, BDG has fired five union supporters on the flimsiest of pretexts and tried to force a premature, immediate election.

Last October the National Labor Relations Board issued 28 complaints against the grower for violations of federal labor law, including three of the firings and its efforts to coerce workers with threats. A four-day hearing was held, and a decision is expected later this winter.

“It is our position that the boss has no place telling workers whether they can join a union or not,” said Peter Olney, ILWU’s director of organizing, at a Human Rights Week hearing in San Francisco Dec. 5. “We have argued with the growers that just as they should not be pressured by other growers or non-growers over their decision to join an agricultural cooperative, so workers should be free to choose whether to belong to a workers’ organization or not.”

For information about solidarity actions with the almond workers, including a Valentine’s Day activity, call Agustin Ramirez at (916) 606-4681.