A simple issue of justice

The workers at the Pictsweet mushroom farm want justice in their workplace. They want decent wages and health benefits, retirement plans, and, most of all, respect. And through the tireless efforts of individual workers, through their personal sacrifice and through the unobtrusive facilitation by the skilled UFW organizers, the mushroom workers and surrounding community are using their collective strength to win a contract.

The concept of a union for farm workers centers on grassroots organizing and the power of communities to create positive social change. Thanks to the tireless work of the nonviolent leader Cesar Chavez, California farm workers’ rights to organize are legally protected through the Agriculture Labor Relations Act. The traditional hierarchical system of the “powerful few” over the “powerless many” relies on the assumption that the many workers will not organize, link arms and work together to exercise their rights. However, the workers have continued to speak truthfully about their hardships at the hands of Pictsweet management. Nonviolence requires that its practitioners understand the transformative power of human suffering. In this respect, the workers are well versed.

In a presentation to a high school in Ventura County, Jose Patiña outlined the wishes of the workers and the tactics they are using to persuade the management at Pictsweet to negotiate with them. Delegations of workers routinely visit the offices of supermarkets and restaurants that still purchase Pictsweet mushrooms. Their main purposes are to personalize the issue – showing the management of those establishments the mistreatment of the workers and of the unjust practices – and to convince them to boycott the Pictsweet mushrooms until the company agrees to negotiate for a fair contract and fair working conditions. The organizers have enlisted the help of college MEChA groups statewide in their latest lobbying efforts as well, encouraging them to distribute flyers at restaurants in California still buying Pictsweet mushrooms.

The workers not only attempt to educate the buyers, but to raise the consciousness of the public as well. Labor Day weekend saw community-wide support for the mushroom workers in a three-mile march through downtown Ventura to the Pictsweet plant. A few months prior, workers stood in front of the government center with signs and puppets at rush hour to publicize the fact that Pizza Hut still purchases Pictsweet mushrooms. And even progressives in Hollywood have taken up their cause as activists Martin Sheen and Mike Farrell have endorsed the workers’ struggle.

¿Que queremos?

The workers want a contract and a raise. All of the nearly 250 workers at the Ventura mushroom farm have been working without a contract for nearly fourteen years. This means that they cannot leverage collective bargaining power to gain the desired improvements in wages and working conditions. While the struggle for a contract has financially impacted the workers and their families, the workers realize that the long-term goal is a raise – more than the last 3-cent raise they received from Pictsweet after an increase of workload. Jose Luis Luna says, “We have not had a significant wage increase in years. The cost of living has gone up several times and we are still making the same money. I support two minor children and myself on my salary.”

The workers want a pension plan. There are no 401K plans for Pictsweet workers. There are no retirement benefits for dedicated employees who have spent more than twenty years working for this company and, regrettably, the workers have nothing to show for their labor when they retire. The director of human resources reports that he encourages workers to invest a portion of their money in savings accounts for their own retirement, but there is no guarantee that any or all of the workers in fact do this. Moreover, because of increased economic hardships as a result of inflation and no adjusted salary increases, the workers often find themselves in already financially precarious situations before having to set aside some money for retirement.

The workers want a decent medical plan. The working conditions at Pictsweet are often precarious: working in pitch black darkness; climbing slippery fifteen-foot tall mushroom beds; and, during the rainy season in California, sometimes working barefoot in water up to their knees in a room with exposed electrical outlets. In violation of fire codes, the buildings where the mushrooms grow have only one fire exit from the second floor. The hats that the workers wear in the dark sheds where the mushrooms grow have inadequate light bulbs, causing severe eyestrain, yet there is no vision plan in their medical benefits.

Workers’ complaints about on-the-job injuries often fall on deaf ears at Pictsweet, where the management challenges their claims, asserting that their injuries happened elsewhere and thus are not covered by workers’ compensation. In addition, the existing medical plan is outrageously expensive for the farm workers’ families. Workers pay on average $13 per week for medical coverage for themselves, their spouses and their children – and yet the individual annual deductible for office visits, not including prescriptions, is a staggering $150 for each member of the family!

In March of this year, a compost fire began as a result of the buildup of discarded compost and hay. The fire’s origins? Rather than reduce productivity to accommodate the decline in business as a result of the boycott, Pictsweet maintained the same level of production and opted to throw out their packaged, unused mushrooms. When the fire started and thick pungent smoke contaminated the air, the community throughout Ventura County was immediately informed of the health risks posed by the toxins released in the air. However, the local Pictsweet management did not address the health risks with their employees until nearly a week later after UFW organizer Jessica Arciniega met with plant manager Ruben Franco. Only then did Pictsweet hand out facemasks for their workers.

The press release by the Ventura County Public Health Department on March 15, 2001 read as follows: “County health officials recommend that healthy adults and children in areas affected by smoke avoid strenuous outdoor activity and remain indoors as much as possible…levels of the particulates in the smoke may be high enough that the potential exists for even healthy people to be affected. [Smoke] may pose a special risk to adults and children with asthma, emphysema, chronic bronchitis, or other respiratory diseases and heart disease.”

Yet the workers were forced to continue working in enclosed buildings where huge fans pumped in thick smoke – unaware of the health risks posed. They were not told by management until the sixth day that their health was jeopardized by working as the fire continued to burn. Moreover, they were not allowed medical leave with pay for illness sustained during this time! Because the Pictsweet workers have no contract, they are at the mercy of their supervisors. Any complaint could be construed as insubordination.

Finally, the workers want respect and a voice at work. There is no partnership at Pictsweet between management and labor. Supervisors routinely condescend to the pro-UFW workers. The supervisors give preferential treatment to the anti-union workers who have family members in management and encourage the contras, those workers who oppose UFW representation, by offering promotions and financial rewards for their complicity in maintaining the status quo at the farm. The pro-UFW workers want a system of arbitration so that they have a safe and reasonable forum to address their grievances with the company.

“It has been hard working for this company, but what can we do, we need to work. It hurts to know that we don’t matter. We give our lives to the company only to learn that they don’t think very much of us. We’re people who feel and think and have families who need us and love us,” explains Baudelio Aguayo. “We’re not animals that nobody wants. All we ask for is a little human compassion and respect.”

These disciplined workers are not only working for their benefit, but for the good of all the workers there. Both pro- and anti-UFW workers alike work in the same conditions. The pro-union faction, a decisive majority of the workers, struggle to create a sustainably just environment for the entire laboring workforce.

Firsthand visit

The management at Pictsweet in Ventura is not wholly to blame – they are merely mid-level executors of policies set by those in the corporate office who value profits over people. When I toured the Pictsweet farm at the behest of management there, I had the opportunity to talk with grower Greg Tuttle, intimately inspect working conditions at the farm, and inquire about the status of negotiations with the workers.

During my visit I saw the close proximity of the fire to the buildings where the workers were forced to endure stifling poor air quality while the fire burned. I saw how the boycott has impacted the productivity: what used to be a room filled floor-to-ceiling with packages of mushrooms had been reduced to one stack of mushrooms less than four feet tall. And I saw no more than ten anti-union workers in white “No UFW” t-shirts at the farm, corroborating the fact that two-thirds of the workers support UFW representation.

In a meeting with Mr. Olmos, head of human resources at the Ventura Pictsweet plant, I learned that the company feels it has been involved in negotiations with the workers for nearly two years, in spite of claims by the workers and UFW organizers that the company has maintained stoic unresponsiveness to workers’ pleas for mediated talks. However, these alleged “negotiations” have not produced better working conditions for any of the workers, and have not provided for a significant wage increase nor recognition of Union representation – charges which the company cannot deny.

In fact, the office atmosphere where I spoke with Mr. Olmos was palpably uncomfortable, him shifting in his chair and clearing his throat as if to indicate the legitimacy of the questions I was raising about resolving the discrepancies between the workers and management. Those in power at the Ventura Pictsweet branch, and those in located at the parent company United Foods, Inc. headquarters in Bells, TN, seem undaunted by the unmistakably devastating economic impact the consumer boycott is having on their business, already having closed one plant in Oregon and drastically scaled back production at the Ventura plant. They seem unmoved by the stamina and vigor exhibited by the workers who, in the words of Gandhi, are seeking through their nonviolent campaign not “to bring their opponents to their knees, but to their senses.”

In a recent major legal victory in mid-January, an administrative judge with the Agricultural Labor Relations Board found Pictsweet guilty of illegally firing mushroom worker Fidel Andrade. Judge Douglas Gallop outlined Pictsweet’s continued mistreatment of its workers who support UFW representation in a 31-page decision, highlighting the animosity shown toward pro-union workers and demanding that Mr. Andrade be given back his job with seniority and pay all lost wages and other benefits. Additionally, Pictsweet must post notices about workers’ rights and allow the workers access to ALRB representatives who can answer the workers’ questions without Pictsweet officials present.

UFW organizer Jessica Arciniega believes that “the judge’s ruling has benefited the workers more than anything in once again validating and reaffirming what workers have known and been experiencing throughout this campaign – that Pictsweet is very anti-union and has been violating workers’ rights. This translates into everyday by workers knowing that if they stand up for their rights, and provide the evidence that is necessary, the law can work in their favor.” One legal victory does not win the battle, however, as Ms. Arciniega points out: “The success of this campaign is dependent on so much more – boycott and solidarity within our communities.” To those who impede the negotiations process, these words, written in 1969 by Cesar Chavez to the President of California Grape and Tree Fruit League, Mr. E.L. Barr, provide a compelling admonition:

“You must understand – I must make you understand – that our membership and the hopes and aspirations of the hundreds of thousands of the poor and dispossessed that have been raised on our account are, above all, human beings, no better and no worse than any other cross-section of human society; we are not saints because we are poor, but by the same measure neither are we immoral. We are men and women who have suffered and endured much, and not only because of our abject poverty but because we have been kept poor. The colors of our skins, the languages of our cultural and native origins, the lack of formal education, the exclusion from the democratic process, the numbers of our men slain in recent wars – all these burdens generation after generation have sought to demoralize us, to break our human spirit. But God knows that we are not beasts of burden, agricultural implements or rented slaves; we are men.”
*Leah C. Wells serves as the Peace Education Coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation and teaches nonviolence in two high schools.