Originally Published in Common Dreams

As many people in our nation today are obsessing over Enron stock, as Northrop Grumman bids $10.8 billion to purchase TRW to make the largest defense contracting agency whose annual revenues would top $26 billion, and as the latest Arnold Schwartzenegger film “Collateral Damage” continues to gross more than $30 million dollars, the workers at the Pictsweet mushroom farm in Ventura, CA are haggling with their recalcitrant management over pennies.

In the 1990’s, mushroom workers at Pictsweet in Ventura received a small raise every two years; in 2000 after an escalation in tension between management and labor due to stalling contract negotiations and workplace discrimination, no raise was issued. The workers, who make an average annual salary of $25,000, have relied on this raise to keep up with the rising cost of living in the United States, even though in prior years the raise was also accompanied by an increased workload meaning that the raise was really not a raise, merely a compensation for the extra work.

But would a contract truly remedy the financial crunch that workers presently feel? The uncontracted workers at Pictsweet obviously get short shrift as compared to the contracted workers at the Monterey Mushroom farm in Watsonville, CA whose working conditions and wages are significantly more competitive and egalitarian under contract with their employer.

Monterey Mushroom workers receive $9.18 per hour for picking Brown mushrooms, and $11.90 per hour for maintenance work. They have no annual deductible for their medical plan and pay no premiums, and they receive 80% coverage for both vision and dental expenses. The lighting in the one-story rooms with mushroom beds have overhead lighting, the air conditioning hoses are plastic and provide proper circulation, and there are two emergency exits per room.

In contrast, workers at Pictsweet Mushroom farm are paid $7.25 per hour for picking Brown mushrooms, and $7.65 per hour for maintenance work. Their medical deductible is $150 per family member per year, and they pay a monthly premium of $58.04, and they have no vision or dental coverage. The only light in rooms with mushroom beds comes from the inadequate bulbs on their helmets, the metal air conditioning tubes condense water which leaks and contributes to slippery work conditions, and there is only one emergency exit on the first floor of two-story rooms. In a September visit to the Pictsweet plant at the invitation of the management, I verified firsthand these working conditions in an extensive tour of the facility.

The demands of the workers at Pictsweet are not extravagant: they want a contract, they want a means of fair arbitration for legitimate complaints, they want better health benefits and they want respect on the job.

On Thursday, February 14, an Agricultural Labor Relations Board hearing commenced in Oxnard, CA to investigate charges filed by lawyers for the United Farm Workers on behalf of the Pictsweet workers. The United Farm Workers maintain that the management at Pictsweet has engaged in unfair labor practices as defined by the Agricultural Labor Relations Act of 1975, such as laying off and reducing work hours for workers without notifying United Farm Workers, their bargaining representative. In the latest hearings, UFW lawyers questioned plant manager from the Ventura Pictsweet farm, Ruben Franco, who admitted under oath that area supervisors of the farm keep separate lists whose existence had been previously denied which list the classification and superiority of workers. These classification and seniority lists are essential to the UFW’s case in proving that new workers were hired instead of reinstating workers who had been laid off.

Pictsweet lawyer Barbara Krieg, whose law firm Bryan Cave LLP earned $11 million in representing the Government of Kuwait in 1993 and 1994 in prosecuting the $59 billion claims for Gulf War reparations against Iraq, later questioned mushroom picker Jesus Torres. Referring to the aforementioned biennial raises, Krieg asked Torres if he believes that “if a worker thinks he deserves a raise, should the worker necessarily receive that raise?” An objection to this question by UFW lawyers was sustained by Judge Nancy C. Smith. In essence, however, Krieg’s question translates as “be quiet, be grateful for the pittance you have, and hope that we don’t take more from you in the end.” This question Krieg posed reflects the classist mentality that worker exploitation is an acceptable and necessary workplace evil in the capitalist dog-eat-dog world.

Because the corporation which owns Pictsweet, United Foods, Inc., went private in 1999, their annual gross revenue for 2001 is unavailable. However, in fiscal year 2000 they earned $163 million and experienced a 21.2% sales growth, according to The Industry Standard. Their annual revenue per employee was $77,619.05 – more than three times what an average Pictsweet employee makes in a year!

In September 2000, the United Farm Workers initiated a boycott of Pictsweet mushrooms which has steadily amassed a following from such retail chains as Vons, Safeway and Ralph’s. The current target of the boycott is Pizza Hut which continues to purchase Pictsweet mushrooms.

The workers will win a contract with Pictsweet, but it will take community support for this boycott and campaign for respect. You can help support them by writing to your local Pizza Hut manager, by refusing to support Pictsweet’s exploitative business practices by not ordering Pizza Hut pizzas, and by coming out to support the workers in their struggle at the upcoming march for economic justice in honor of the labor hero Cesar Chavez in Oxnard on April 28.
*Leah C. Wells is the Peace Education Coordinator for Nuclear Age peace Foundation. This article can also be found at: http://www.change-links.org/leahwells.htm