Farm workers: One, two, three grapes, you’re out!

LOS ANGELES –If you had a job picking fruit at Fresno-based Gerawan Farming, you’d fill many 22-pound boxes of table grapes on every shift. If the boss finds just one rotten grape that you’ve boxed, you’ll lose your entire day’s wages. Two, and you’ll lose two days’ wages. Three rotten grapes, and you can get fired.

This is the kind of harassment, abuse, and wage theft that’s going on in the fields of California’s Central Valley by one of the nation’s largest fruit growers. Gerawan (Geh-RAH-wan) not only sells grapes, but peaches, plums, nectarines and apricots under its Prima label at stores throughout California. Its biggest customer is Walmart. But Gerawan doesn’t just pick on individual workers: They’ve picked on the whole United Farm Workers, the storied union for agricultural laborers that César Chávez, Dolores Huerta and many others founded in the 1960s, and that won the sympathy of fair-minded people worldwide.

Under the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, the UFW won an election for union representation two years ago, but Gerawan has refused to honor the contract issued last year by a neutral mediator and approved by the state. State prosecutors have brought a case against Gerawan before a Fresno judge over a myriad of labor abuses designed to thwart the success of the union and ultimately destroy it. The UFW’s big “ask” is simply to get the grower to implement the state-mandated contract, which will resolve issues of back wages, benefits, and rights on the job. With implementation, the UFW will also start receiving 3 percent of earned wages as union dues.

Over a hundred farm workers from Gerawan bused down to Los Angeles early Wednesday morning for a short 9 a.m. rally on the sidewalk outside Our Lady of the Angels Cathedral, attended by an equal number of supporters from the community. Labor leaders and politicians addressed the crowd. Three L.A. city councilmen were present-President Herb Wesson, Curren D. Price, Jr., and Bob Blumenfield-emphasizing that when the gathering proceeded to march on City Hall four blocks down Temple Street, it was not going to be a protest! Rather, the farm workers would be welcomed with open arms. L.A. was prepared to show its support.

Addressing the assembled union supporters were also UFW President Arturo Rodríguez, U.S. Rep. Judy Chu, and L.A. County Federation of Labor Executive Secretary-Treasurer María Elena Durazo, as well as a few of the farmworkers themselves. Durazo told the crowd that though the workers are “invisible to us most of the time,” when we sit down at the table, either at home or out in a restaurant, remember the toil and the toll upon working people that it took to bring those products to market. Rodríguez demanded that Gerawan “obey the law just like everyone else,” and to stop “trampling on the rights of farmworkers,” who deserve “the same respect and dignity as everyone else in this state.”

While waiting to be admitted to City Hall, the marchers kept up the chants for the contract, and an end to bullying and harassment. Every few minutes the crowd broke into the familiar rhythmic slogan first popularized in Salvador Allende’s Chile more than 40 years ago, el pueblo unido jamás sera vencido, the people united will never be defeated.

The council chamber was packed with the UFW’s “sí se puede” red shirts, the bright yellow of the UFCW (which handles Prima fruit in unionized grocery stores throughout California), and representatives of many other unions. The scheduled hour of 10 a.m. for Item 16, declaring support for the farmworkers, came and went on the City Council agenda. For a good 90 minutes the Council heard testimony about changing the timing of city elections to coincide with other major votes (presidential, congressional) so as to improve voter turnout. Between the imperfect, reverberating sound system in the ornate marble hall, and the rustling impatience of workers awaiting their moment of glory, it was hard to follow that discussion. Though it surely must have occurred to people that in a larger sense it’s all related: Greater turnout means a more involved citizenry, greater democracy, and better outcomes for working people. Setting out a path toward citizenship for 11 million undocumented residents in the U.S. would help too.

At last – it was after 11:30 – Item 16, introduced by Councilmembers Paul Koretz and Curren Price. Arturo Rodríguez spoke, María Elena Durazo (recalling her own upbringing in the farmworker community-for her this is personal!), and Rabbi Jonathan Klein, executive director of Clergy and Laity United for Economic Justice. Several farmworkers spoke in Spanish, with translation provided, citing labor violations, pressure, layoffs, arbitrary discipline, intimidation, unpaid days, no shade (Gerawan won’t allow you eat your noontime lunch under the fruit trees!), special exploitation of women, expensive medical coverage, and the lack of dignity from the long delay of union recognition.

Rick Tuttle was the last speaker for Item 16, a 16-year former L.A. City Controller well known to most of the City Council members, who has been active in the support of farmworkers for 49 years. He reaffirmed that many of the City Council members themselves came out of union backgrounds, some with extensive histories of working in the agricultural sector. Throughout the over 20-minute long succession of speakers for the resolution, the audience stood at their seats as a sign of respect and support. This crowd had come to be seen!

Four speakers, using only half of the opposition’s allotted 20 minutes for discussion, rose to complain about having to surrender 3 percent of wages to the union. We’re doing just fine at Gerawan, they said. Gerawan has joined up with radical right-wing groups affiliated with Grover Norquist to orchestrate a well-financed PR campaign against the UFW, including anti-union labor consultant costs of $3,000 per day. Clearly, Gerawan would love to see the union decertified, submitting large numbers of forged signatures on decert petitions, and granting time off and extreme leniency toward workers who helped the decert campaign, while riding herd on union supporters.

When the electronic tally ran up on the screen overhead, loud cheering and the UFW handclapping rose up as one voice. A unanimous vote!

Seeking justice in the courts can be a notoriously slow process. In the meantime, Gerawan continues with business as usual, mistreating its 5,000 workers during peak harvest season. Therefore the union is turning to consumers and the “court of public opinion” to state its case.

The fact that the Los Angeles City Council has gone on record as supporting implementation of the contract should be a powerful statement. L.A. is, after all, the second-largest city in the country, and the closest metropolitan area to the produce, with potentially millions of consumers prepared almost overnight to start boycotting Prima fruit and the stores that sell it.

In that sense the City Council resolution is far more than a vote of confidence in the union. It might be a game-changing persuader.

Photo: City Councilman Paul Koretz with UFW President Arturo Rodríguez and a few of their friends in the rotunda of Los Angeles City Hall. Eric A. Gordon/PW.



Eric A. Gordon
Eric A. Gordon

Eric A. Gordon, People’s World Cultural Editor, wrote a biography of radical American composer Marc Blitzstein and co-authored composer Earl Robinson’s autobiography. He has received numerous awards for his People's World writing from the International Labor Communications Association. He has translated all nine books of fiction by Manuel Tiago (pseudonym for Álvaro Cunhal) from Portuguese, available from International Publishers NY.