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Five cents for fairness: The case for change in the strawberry fields, UFW/AFL-CIO, 1996

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Five Cents for Fairness: The Case for Change in the Strawberry Fields

The Strawberry Workers Campaign November 1996

Introduction: Barons feast, workers struggle
‘I will be worn out’
12-hour day, poverty wage
Sharecropping: a cruel hope
A booming business for the barons
Bankrolling the industry and politicians
Protecting pesticides that hurt people
Many growers, but just one power
A ‘showcase’ company is an illusion
Five cents for fairness
In a land without law
Barons at war with the workers
It doesn’t have to be this way
Five cents the industry can afford

The information in this report was obtained from sources believed to be accurate and reliable. The authors exercised due caution in preparing and writing this report, but because of the possibility of human and mechanical error, its accuracy and completeness cannot be guaranteed.

Introduction: Barons feast, workers struggle

Times are good for the California strawberry industry. Sales are hitting records-$552 million worth of berries last year. Production has topped a billion pounds. The industry has consolidated. In the Central Coast, the heart of strawberry country, eight rich corporations are doing very well.
These eight corporations, which cool and distribute berries, have become the preeminent producers of fresh strawberries around the globe. Berries picked in the state’s fields end up on fruit plates in Japan, dessert tables in Canada and fruit stands in France, not to mention supermarkets from Boston to San Francisco.
Of all fresh strawberries shipped in the U.S., 75 percent came from California in 1995. Worldwide, one in 10 fresh strawberries is picked in California.

But, while the strawberry barons are feasting on good times, things are not so good for the people who pick the berries.

The typical California strawberry worker spends as many as 12 hours a day stooped over the low berry plants. Workers report that foremen sometimes demand sexual favors from women field workers in exchange for employment. After years of loyalty, workers must line up each season to be rehired and face firings on a whim. Sometimes there is no fresh drinking water in the fields. Bathrooms are often filthy. Workers labor amid pesticides and suffer chronic back injuries, but often have little or no health insurance.

California strawberry workers face these conditions for about $8,500 a season.

The workers and their families suffer economically, socially and in the end-their lifespan is significantly shorter than the people they work for.

Communities suffer. The lack of money destroys the opportunity for neighborhoods to thrive. Children crowd into emergency facilities instead of receiving adequate health care to prevent serious illness.

Things are getting worse.

The standard of living for strawberry workers, as it has for many Americans, has nose dived in the last decade. But by some estimates, wages have declined by as much as half for strawberry workers.

All the while, the share of every dollar spent on strawberries which goes to the worker has declined from 17.5 cents to 9.2 cents between 1985 and 1995.

It doesn’t have to be this way.

For five cents more per pint of strawberries, worker piece pay rates in many cases could increase by at least half. But, the strawberry corporations are not interested. On the contrary, they have tolerated and encouraged an environment that crushes the workers each time they take responsibility and try to improve their lives.

Five Cents for Fairness: The Case for Change in the Strawberry Fields is our look at the web of power that covers the fields and the people who labor in them.

‘I will be worn out’
Since he was 16 years old, Jorge Martinez has picked California strawberries. At the peak of the strawberry season, Martinez arrives in the Central Coast fields as the sun is rising. The sun will be setting when he leaves for home.

To pick strawberries requires more than a willingness to end a 12-hour day with red-stained hands and a tired frame. It takes a particular skill and stamina.

Strawberries are one of the few crops for which there is no harvesting machinery, nor is there likely to be. Human skill is required. The skill is in twisting off the right berries, quickly and gently. How much skill could that take? The strawberry industry did a study, putting two workers side-by-side. The skilled picker’s fruit included 14 percent unmarketable strawberries, compared with the less skilled picker, whose fruit included a third unsaleable berries. In fact, researchers say the single most important indicator of a quality crop is the skill of the strawberry pickers.1

The fresh strawberry market demands only attractive, red-ripe berries. They are fragile. Martinez will most likely be paid by how many of the berries he picks-more than 10,000 on a good day for which he will earn less than a penny per berry.2

Stamina is required, too. Martinez must stoop, his back bent over the foot-high berry plants. To stand and stretch takes him away from the plants and lowers his productivity.

The work for most pickers will be done with few amenities. Bathrooms are often dirty. Fresh drinking water is not always present. If Martinez’ daughter were to follow in his footsteps, as many farm worker children do, she may face demands for sex in exchange for employment as some field workers have reported.

As with all farm labor-it’s one of the most dangerous occupations with risks surpassing mining and construction-there are other hazards. Martinez suffers from chronic back injuries, yet he has no insurance to pay for medical care. In fact, Martinez fears he will lose his job if he complains about his pain.

There is the spring discomfort. Each year when the season begins, Martinez and other strawberry workers complain of welts and raised spots on their skin. They theorize the rashes are from pesticides that are on the strawberry plants and in the soil.

In fact, several pesticides used by strawberry growers can cause skin rashes and eye irritations, according to the pesticide manufacturers.

One of the most commonly used pesticides in the strawberry fields is methyl bromide. To prepare for methyl bromide applications, growers cover their fields with plastic and pump the substance into the ground. The plastic is used to prevent the toxin from drifting too far away from where the strawberry pickers labor. Neighborhoods have been evacuated due to drifting methyl bromide, and scientists believe it depletes the ozone.3

If Martinez is like the average strawberry worker, he’ll quit in four years. The strain of the job causes most pickers to give up the work by the time they’re 30 years old.4

That has not been a problem for the strawberry barons, who have encouraged a surplus of labor for decades. Still, many strawberry workers loyally return to the same fields year after year, even though they have no assurance they will be employed. Each season, Martinez must reapply for the same job.

As he does, his dreams-of running his own business, or just making a living wage to help support his daughter-begin to fade.

"When I’m 50 years old, I will be worn out," said Martinez.

12-hour day, poverty wage
The people who pick the berries work for low wages. According to state of California estimates, the average strawberry worker makes $8,500 for an entire season.

But, it is difficult to clearly calculate what strawberry pickers earn because pay procedures vary. Workers are sometimes paid an hourly rate and at other times, a piece rate per crate of berries picked. In still other instances, workers are paid through a combination of the two methods.

Official wage estimates don’t account for the practice of some growers attempting to pay workers in cash under the table, which often amounts to less than the minimum wage. Piece rates sometimes amount to less than minimum wage, and there are reports of paychecks bouncing. Workers in one field were fired in August 1996 when they inquired about their paychecks bouncing.

Most strawberry workers have been without a significant raise for the last decade. In fact, if inflation is considered, the value of strawberry workers’ wages has plummeted during that time period.

Estimates on the decline in the value of farm worker wages vary. One estimate put the decline at 53 percent between 1985 and 1996.5 Another said wages had fallen 25 percent in the last 15 years,6 while another estimated that wages were at a 20 year low.7 In Santa Cruz County, a survey in 1993 showed the average household (four people) income for farm workers was $14,092.8 It is true many American workers find themselves in the same downward wage spiral as strawberry workers. But, the spiral of farm worker wages has been faster and deeper. According to one estimate, farm labor wages fell 50 percent faster than manufacturing wages during the 1980s.9

It is clear that farm workers find themselves toiling in one of the most demanding jobs there is, but they now do it for less money than in recent history.

This further impoverishment of farm labor is actually understated for strawberry workers. The rate of inflation for many of their necessities, particularly housing in proximity to Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, is much greater than the consumer price index would indicate.

The housing market near the strawberry fields is far out of reach of most field workers, leading to the proliferation of dilapidated motels that rent for $150-$200 a week, cardboard shacks on the outskirts of towns and families living in caves.

Despite data that is not always consistent, one thing is clear: strawberry worker wages, which were never adequate, have fallen even further behind in the last decade.

Sharecropping: a cruel hope

For many workers, sharecropping looms as a way out. But it is often a trap that further victimizes the victims of the strawberry barons.

Sharecropping is when a field owner leases crop land to a person who turns over much of the crop to the field owner. The sharecropper retains a portion of the crop as payment for operating the field.

As many as half of the state’s strawberry growers are sharecroppers.10

In many crops, agribusiness has used farm labor contractors as a way of holding down wages and insulating the industry from responsibility for abusive practices. Contractors actually hire and pay field hands, thus removing growers and the industry from legal responsibility for working conditions.

In the strawberry industry, many growers and corporations have used the practice of sharecropping instead of labor contracting. Sharecroppers, who themselves are often under financial strain, technically employ field hands, even though the farm owner provides virtually all the equipment and material. Many field hands have become sharecroppers, lured by the promise of cultivating their own plot of land. But, sharecroppers must take whatever price is offered by a grower with whom he or she has a contract and they often end up further in debt to the property owner at the end of the season than when the season began.

In many cases their lifestyles are no better than the ones they tried to leave behind-except now they are greatly in debt. They often cannot afford quality berry plants for the fresh market that produce greater profits.

The pressures on sharecroppers often lead to inferior product. A survey of growers showed that 68 percent of them said sharecropper strawberries were of lower quality and 82 percent said availability of sharecropper strawberries was less predictable.11 The pressures also result in some of the harshest employment conditions.

Still, many strawberry barons, who operate sophisticated corporations, use sharecroppers’ harvests.

A booming business for the barons
While strawberry workers struggle, business for the barons that control the industry is booming.

In a region that is the salad bowl of the country-the Central Coast produces $1.6 billion in lettuce and vegetables in the No. 1 agriculture state in the nation12-strawberries are becoming king. And eight Central Coast cooler-shipping companies are on the throne.

The impact on many parts of the state is apparent. For example, in Watsonville, the heart of strawberry country, everything from traffic patterns to housing to community festivals are shaped by strawberries.

At sunrise, lines of vehicles carrying field workers make their way through fog along dusty gravel roads to the fields. At day’s end, the character of the traffic changes as trucks carrying boxes of berries line the highways en route to cooling companies where the berries are chilled.

In a quarter century, strawberries have grown to become one of the most profitable crops in the nation. The strawberry industry nationally nears $800 million in annual revenues.

If growth continues at its current pace-doubling between 1971 and 1980 and doubling again between 1981 and 1990-the industry would gross $1.1 billion by 2000 and $2 billion by 2010. It would employ 50,000 workers, more than double the current 20,000.

Per capita consumption of strawberries has grown from three pounds to five pounds between 1970 and 1994. In 1970, people spent more money on four fresh fruit crops-peaches, grapes, apples and oranges-than strawberries. Today, only apples are more valuable. In fact, strawberries are the second-most valuable fresh fruit in the country. Between 1970 and 1994, the strawberry industry nearly tripled its output from 289 million pounds to 814 million pounds.13 And it continues to grow.

Highly productive California fields and the public’s renewed appetite for fresh fruits, combined with an aggressive marketing campaign by the strawberry industry, is fueling the growth.
In a display of shrewdness combined with the benefits of natural resources, the lucrative trade has been consolidated by the cooler-shippers, particularly those in the Central Coast region. About 42 percent of the state’s 600 to 700 strawberry growers are in Santa Cruz and Monterey counties. "Acre for acre, this valley has the richest soil on earth," a historical chronicle of the strawberry notes.14

About 75 percent of the country’s fresh strawberries are grown in California, topping $450 million in annual value. Compare that with 1946, when the state’s market share was 6 percent. And yields per acre have soared from 34,000 pounds in 1970 to 45,500 pounds in 1993. As the strawberry industry in California has grown, growers in other states replaced strawberries with other crops.15

A small amount of the berries are still grown in Florida and Washington. But California dominates, harvesting berries from March to October in the Central Coast and for several months in the southern part of the state. Sunny days and cool, foggy nights, as well as refined growing techniques, mean growers in California are able to produce 90 percent of fresh berries even though they have only 47 percent of the nation’s strawberry acreage.

There is no significant competition for California strawberries.

Bankrolling the industry and politicians

As the Central Coast cooler-shippers consolidated the industry, they also joined together among themselves to increase their power.

Today’s California Strawberry Commission dates to 1937 with the passage of the California Marketing Act. The commission is governed by a board consisting of producers, shippers, processors and one public member. Under state law, the commission is given the power to levy a tax on all members of the industry to use for advertising, production, processing and market research.

The commission levies the tax in the form of a 5-cent per tray (12 pints of berries) assessment. This tax gives the commission an annual budget of $4.5 million, much of which historically has gone to marketing and research.16

But, the commission has gradually diverted more resources to another area, which it dubs issues management. The commission’s 1996 annual report defines this in part as "dealing with misinformation presented by the media," "informing policy makers about the potential impact of pending legislation" and protecting the "arsenal of crop protection chemicals available to strawberry growers."

The strawberry corporations have more than just the commission as a financial arsenal. They are also subsidized by public funds.

The federal government gives the strawberry barons federal funds to market berries abroad. In 1995, the subsidy amounted to $455,000.17

Protecting pesticides that hurt people

When it comes to pesticides, manufacturers have few more true friends than the shipper-coolers. The strawberry industry is the state’s biggest user of pesticides, applying about 7 million pounds of chemicals a year. Pesticide use, according to several contracts between growers and shipper-coolers, is directed by the shipper-coolers who can closely monitor growers’ techniques.

The rate of pesticide application on strawberries can be 25 times that of lettuce and 50 times that of grapes.18 Strawberry fields are covered with pesticides at a rate of 300 pounds per acre, more than for any other crop in the state, according to 1994 data.19

Dozens of pesticides are used, but half of the volume consists of methyl bromide. More than 4 million pounds of methyl bromide is injected into the ground each year to fumigate the soil before fungus-sensitive strawberries are planted.20 Workers cover fields with plastic sheets before using the chemical to prevent it from drifting into the atmosphere. In addition to its environmental affects, methyl bromide has been linked to more than 400 illnesses and 15 deaths in other industries between 1984 and 1993.21

Because of unanswered questions about its environmental impact and toxicity, methyl bromide was scheduled to be banned in 1996. But, after heavy lobbying, the California Legislature-in a special session, allowing Gov. Pete Wilson to avoid the normal requirement of a two-thirds majority vote-delayed the ban.22 The strawberry industry lobbied ardently and backed their lobbying with cash. Agribusiness in California has given hundreds of thousands of dollars to Wilson. The Western Growers Association, strongly tied to the industry, gave more than $30,000 to Wilson’s campaign fund in 1994.

Jeffrey Gargiulo, president of Gargiulo, personally gave $1,000, and Driscoll board member Clint Miller and Driscoll President Kenneth Morena gave a total of $1,500 out of their own pockets.23 In addition, officials of 4 other cooler-shippers gave Wilson thousands of dollars. Now methyl bromide is set to be banned nationally in 2001 and worldwide in 2010, although lobbying has begun again to delay the ban. Strawberry workers like Jorge Martinez are likely to have been used up by the industry long before the toxin is eliminated.

Methyl bromide is not the only poison in the fields.

In 1992, growers applied 11,400 pounds of Benomyl. The industry used more than 40,000 pounds of Captan, more than 11,500 pounds of copper products and 368,000 pounds of sulfur.24

The pesticide residues on strawberry plants are toxic and can cause skin rashes, eye irritation and respiratory problems if workers aren’t protected.

Benomyl has been listed as a reproductive toxin by the state of California, and Captan has been classified as a cancer-causing agent by the state and by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency.

Captan was banned for use on many crops in 1989. But, its use on some crops, including strawberries, was permitted when the industry argued that halting its use would cost too much money. Federal regulations require that workers who enter fields within 48 hours of Captan treatment must have special protective equipment. The strawberry industry, however was able to reduce the protective time limit to 24 hours.

Many growers, but just one power
Once upon a time, the strawberry industry, like much of agriculture, was a highly fractured business consisting of many growers and a weak distribution system.

Even today, it might appear that way from the strawberry fields. In the Central Coast, there is a mish-mash of 270 growers and sharecroppers.

But, as the industry has blossomed, control has narrowed. Only 42 of the growers account for 70 percent of the strawberry acreage25 and the top 10 growers account for 26 percent of acreage.

Just like the strawberry pickers, growers large and small in the Central Coast are at the mercy of the strawberry barons, the cooler-shippers. These eight corporations are the nerve center, setting conditions of the industry from pesticide use to effectively pushing down the wages of strawberry workers. Eighty-five percent of Central Coast growers send berries to these corporations.

The growers function merely as subcontractors working for a general contractor, which is a cooler-shipper company.

How much can the cooler-shipper control the grower?

Growers have the immediate concern of chilling the berries after they are harvested. "I can’t stuff my berries into a silo like a wheat farmer does," said one strawberry farmer. 26
Growers usually must sign exclusive contracts with a shipper-cooler,preventing them from selling their berries on the open market.
Growers are at the mercy of cooler-shippers for distribution and marketing of their product.
Growers can be required to grow a specific variety of berry-which they purchase and finance through the cooler-shipper. The cooler-shipper specifies pesticide use and other cultivation practices, according to a Well-Pict contract.
Shipper-coolers can punish and reward growers through an acreage allotment system. For example, an agreement with Well-Pict states that the corporation sets an acreage allotment for each grower.
The control exerted by the strawberry barons is great. In effect, the cooler-shippers act as employers for the industry from cultivation to distribution. It is through legal arrangements that they seek to escape responsibility for conditions in the industry.

A ‘showcase’ company is an illusion
Driscoll Strawberry Associates is the largest fresh strawberry shipper in the U.S. While Driscoll does not own strawberry fields, its board of directors consists of large growers.

Driscoll considers itself a showcase company in the industry. It produces an oversized trademark strawberry that sells at a premium. Some workers in fields where berries are destined for Driscoll earn about $6.75 an hour-above the average wage-and have medical benefits.

Driscoll has control over 50 percent more acreage in the Central Coast than their nearest competitor. The company invests heavily in research, having paid 11 scientists in 1991 to help, in part, breed strawberry plants that produce the most visually appealing berry for consumers.

About 25 growers market their berries through Driscoll, including Clint Miller, Driscoll’s second-largest grower. Miller is an officer on Driscoll’s board of directors. He is on the board of directors of the California Strawberry Commission. And, he and his wife, Karen, head the powerful Western Growers Association Political Action Committee.

But the perception that Driscoll’s growers are model employers is an illusion. Handbooks admonish workers that they can be fired with or without a reason. There is no objective method for rehiring workers from season to season. There is no retirement benefit. Based on the illusion, Driscoll reinforces the bottom rung of the industry. To get hired at some Driscoll farms, workers must have experience, which may come at the hands of unscrupulous growers.

Another large cooler-shipper among the barons is Gargiulo, a corporation that directly controls strawberries from planting to distribution. Gargiulo is wholly owned by Calgene Corp., a majority of the shares of which are expected to soon be owned by the chemical giant Monsanto Corp. Monsanto is known for Nutrasweet and home garden chemicals. Calgene and Gargiulo have worked together to develop genetically engineered tomatoes and are currently developing a genetically engineered strawberry.

While the barons invest in products, they neglect what research has shown to be the most important ingredient in strawberry production-the strawberry worker.

Not only have wages for the strawberry workers fallen in real and in inflation-adjusted terms, but the share of every retail dollar the worker receives has plummeted, too.

In 1985, 17.5 cents of every strawberry dollar went to the worker. That fell to 9.2 cents in 1995, down 49 percent.

It’s not for a lack of profits. A $12,000 to $30,000 per acre investment-there are 20,000 acres of strawberries in California-can produce a $10,000 to $15,000 per acre profit.

Five cents for fairness

Just as the industry taxes itself for its effective marketing and education efforts, the strawberry corporations could afford a similar sum to benefit the workers that make up the vast majority of the industry.

For only 5 cents more per pint of berries, worker conditions could be dramatically improved. According to the California Institute for Rural Studies, an independent research organization in Davis, 5 cents per pint would increase piece pay rates for most strawberry workers by at least 50 percent, and in some cases much more.27

At the current average wage, strawberry workers earn about $8,500 a season. That is well below the $15,569 a year poverty level for a family of four. For five cents more per pint of strawberries, 20,000 workers and their families would move closer to leaving poverty behind.

Clearly, the industry could across the board afford such a levy-they’ve done it to support their own interests.

The impact would not only be on the workers. As it stands, strawberry workers and their families struggle to be a part of the larger community. But, their incomes and lack of benefits prohibit it. Their spending is limited to economic necessities such as a motel room to sleep in and staples from a grocer.

According to calculations based on U.S. Census data, strawberry workers are concentrated into neighborhoods that are poor. One Watsonville neighborhood that is home to strawberry workers has a poverty rate that is twice the average for Santa Cruz County.

For five cents more per pint, strawberry workers would be able to spend more on housing and no longer support dilapidated structures that mar neighborhoods. Their earnings would spread throughout the community to residential builders, Realtors, service stations, grocers, restaurants, clothing stores and the like.

Public tax dollars currently subsidize the strawberry industry’s employment practices, particularly when it comes to health care expenses. Uninsured workers traditionally must seek health care at publicly supported facilities. Health insurance benefits would not only ease the strain on public facilities. Preventative care would mean healthier families and would reduce long-term costs associated with poor pre-natal, neo-natal and pediatric care.

Field workers suffer from parasitic infections twenty times more than an average worker.28 As noted, injuries are much more common for field workers-fatal injuries are 10 times more common among farm workers than other workers.

In all, the life expectancy for a Latino field worker is 49-more than two decades less than for a typical American.29 The loss of life is in itself tragic. Yet, the impact on families and resulting burden is being borne by the workers and the public, not the industry.

In a land without law, workers need power
In many ways, the fields of California are a land without the weight of law.

  • Clear sanitation and safety laws govern the rights of California farm workers. For example, under law they must have fresh drinking water and clean bathrooms. But, in non-union fields, the law is far from enforced. There is often no one to enforce it. The California Occupational Safety and Health Administration visited only 457 of the 77,669 farms in the state in 1995. At that pace, it would take 170 years to visit each farm. In a four-county area that includes Santa Cruz and Monterey counties, Cal-OSHA has 11 inspectors covering all workplaces. When they did visit the fields, the weakness of government inspections was apparent. Of fields inspected, half were not complying with the sanitation laws. The alleged reemergence of the so-called "el cortito," or the short-handled hoe, is further proof of legal ineffectiveness. The hoe causes back injuries and has been outlawed.31
  • Workers are routinely-and illegally-charged for equipment they need in the fields, such as carts to carry berries, and gloves to protect them from pesticides.
  • While sexual harassment is clearly illegal, it happens too often in the strawberry fields. Workers report that foremen ask for sexual favors from women in exchange for employment. The workers generally do not have the support to challenge such employers. And, they are caught between fear for their jobs if they don’t comply with demands for sex and fear for their jobs if they try to stop the illegal activity.
  • Child labor is clearly illegal in California agriculture. Yet, there are many reports of young teenagers working full time in the fields. The driving causes are low wages and an industry and enforcement mechanism that is ineffectual or unconcerned.
    It was in part a complaint of sexual harassment that led hundreds of strawberry workers to successfully organize with the United Farm Workers in 1995.

Strawberry workers in a union could act as marshals overseeing the use of pesticides more effectively than stretched and absent government agencies. They could do the same for issues of health, safety, child labor and wages.

Moreover, union strawberry workers would work to take responsibility for their own condition, seeking better wages and benefits that would ripple through their communities. Union strawberry workers would bring sanity to the field hiring system. Willingness to provide sexual favors or not question conditions would no longer be a criteria for hiring.

In addition to providing strawberry workers with the ability to speak up for themselves, their legitimate concern about their companies’ success could bear fruit for the industry.

The industry would have a steady supply of labor more prepared for their jobs. The strawberry worker, whose skill is the most important element in the quality of a harvest, would become a key player in the industry.

Barons at war with the workers

The strawberry industry has crushed workers each time they attempted take responsibility for their workplace and improve it.

The 1995 case cited above is an example. Workers at VCNM Farms voted by a 6-to-1 margin for the United Farm Workers.32 Instead of negotiating with the workers, VCNM crushed them.

Within weeks of organizing, VCNM plowed under its fields and abandoned more than 400 employees and their families. VCNM agreed to a $113,000 settlement after the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board brought charges alleging the company stopped harvesting to crush the workers’ union.

A year before, Oceanview Produce Co. in Oxnard, took a similar action. Workers voted for the UFW and the company shut down its strawberry operations.

The pattern was initiated in 1989 when workers at Furukawa Farms in Santa Maria voted by a 3-to-2 margin to join the United Farm Workers. The company responded by eventually shutting down its strawberry operations.

The control exerted by the strawberry barons is one reason strawberry workers are currently organizing throughout the industry. Industry-wide unionization will take the meager wages of strawberry workers out of competition-growers would not compete on the basis of how little they can pay for labor. In addition, industry-wide organization would leave the VCNM-type operations with no alternative but to treat workers as partners. The strawberry industry in its entirety cannot be transplanted across the border or away from a pro-union work force.

Perhaps because of that, the strawberry industry is waging a vicious war against its workers. Workers are being fired, threatened and harassed for union activities.

Despite the economic and psychological war against workers, the goals of the pro-union employees are widely shared. Workers have publicly stated that they want higher wages, better benefits and a stronger strawberry industry.

The strawberry corporations have painted the United Farm Workers as an outside force that doesn’t understand the hopes of the workers. In fact, the UFW has been an integral part of California for three decades.

In the central coast, thousands of workers have signed cards saying they support unionizing with the United Farm Workers. More than 12,000 workers and supporters have marched in Watsonville in favor of the UFW. Hundreds of strawberry workers are part of union committees in the fields.

It doesn’t have to be this way

Where field workers have organized, they have made a difference. Their companies continue to thrive and the workers’ conditions have improved. Union farm workers have become integral parts of their communities, owning homes, attending schools and working to improve their neighborhoods.

In the Central Coast mushroom industry, for example, 67 percent of workers have organized with the United Farm Workers. The general labor rate for one UFW mushroom company is $8.69 an hour. The company has a comprehensive family health care package, a pension plan, nine paid holidays, paid vacations, protection from arbitrary firings and an orderly method for rehiring.

That compares favorably with Gargiulo, the Monsanto-linked grower-cooler. There, workers can make as little as $5.25 an hour, have no pension plan, no paid vacation, four paid holidays, no protection from arbitrary firings and no objective system for rehiring.

Yet, the mushroom industry has not suffered. In fact it has prospered with productivity gains encouraged and partly developed by the union workers.

Five cents the industry can afford

Consumers are buying more strawberries than ever, but few know about the conditions under which the fruit is harvested. The workers pick berries for 10 and sometimes 12 hours a day for about $8,500 a season. They have little or no job security or health insurance. They face child labor, fields treated with dangerous pesticides and sexual harassment. It doesn’t have to be this way, as the United Farm Workers have already demonstrated.

The Central Coast strawberry fields are controlled by eight rich corporations that are quick to fund efforts to consolidate the industry. They have done it with their own tax for marketing. They have the power to improve conditions for the most important link in the industry, the workers.

The corporations that control the industry have shown they will use various methods to distance themselves from the fields.

People who buy strawberries, people who consider themselves allies with working families, and industry players must raise and answer the question: Is five cents for fairness to much to ask?


1F.G. Mitchell, E.C. Maxie and A.S. Greathead, Handling Strawberries for Fresh Market, Circular 527. (Berkeley: University of California, Division of Agricultural Sciences.), 1964.

2State of California Employment development Department; Agriculture Reporting Unit; Job Service Division, California farm Labor Report; Estimated Mid-Month employment
by county, June, 1985-1995

3Mark Grossl, "Farmworkers urge
fumigant ban," Fresno Bee, January 24, 1996.

4Miriam J. Wells, Strawberry Fields (Ithaca and London: Cornell University Press, 1996)

5Eric Schlosser, "In the Strawberry Fields," The Atlantic Monthly, November, 1995, p.84.

6Gordon Smith, "Fruits of Their Labor," San Diego Union Tribune, April 23, 1996.

7Wells, op.cit., p. 297.

8Lauren Associates with Loren L.
Parks, Ph.D, Santa Cruz County Farmworker Housing Needs Report (Santa Cruz County Farmworker Housing Committee, 1993) p. 23.

9Don Villarejo and Dave Runsten, California’s Agricultural Dilemma (Davis, CA: California Institute for Rural Studies), p. 24, December, 1993.

10Schlosser, op.cit., p. 84.

11Wells, op.cit., p. 242.

12California Food and Agriculture Department

13Agriculture Statistics 1995-96,
U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, National Agricultural Statistics Service, p. V30.

14Steven Wilhelm and James E. Sagan, A History of the Strawberry: From Ancient Gardens to Modern Markets (Berkeley: University of California, Division of Agricultural Sciences, 1974) p. 107.

15Diane Bertelson, The U.S. Strawberry Industry, Commerce Agriculture Division, Economic Research Service, U.S. Dept. of Agriculture, Statistical Bulletin Nol 914, January, 1995, pp. 14-15.

16California Food and Agricultural Code, 77481.

17United States Department of Agriculture, Foreign Agricultural Service.

18Sustainable Cotton Project, Pesticide Use in California Strawberries.


20Ken Chavez, "Wilson signs methyl bromide bill," Sacramento Bee.

21Deaths were due to methyl bromide use as an industrial or commercial

22Chavez, op.cit.

23Western Growers Political Action Committee, campaign contribution
filings. Wilson Campaign, federal and state campaign contribution filings.

24California Department of Pesticide Regulation, Annual Pesticide Use Report.

25Acreage calculations based on past reports filed with county agriculture commissions.

26Schlosser, op.cit., p. 87.

27Tracy L. Barnett, "Fresh Campaign," Santa Cruz Sentinel, May 19, 1996. (The calculation is based on government statistics showing the average piece rate per tray of berries is $1.25. Each tray contains about 12 pints. Thus, the worker receives about 10 cents per pint; 5 cents more would mean a 50 percent increase.)

28Antonio R. Velasco, M.D., Farm Workers in the 1990s, (Santa Rosa, CA: Fifth Annual Latino Health Conference, 1996) pp. 4, 9 and 11.


30Edgar Sanchez, "Farm sanitation enforcement is urged," Sacramento Bee, July 11, 1996.

31Associated Press, "Watsonville, Salinas farmer accused of reviving illegal hoes," Watsonville Register-Pajaronian, April 18, 1996.

32Marty Burleson and Roya Camp, "Local berry pickers vote for UFW," Salinas Californian, August 18, 1995.