This article is available in the magazine Hope Dance, online athttp://www.hopedance.org
While many people experience co-worker squabbles and subtle inter-office politicking at their jobs, every day the pro-UFW workers at Pictsweet confront open hostilities across clearly delineated battle lines where those in red ‘La Union Hace La Fuerza’ shirts stand side by side in stark juxtaposition to workers in white ‘NO UFW’ t-shirts worn by the contras, as they pick and pack mushrooms together in suspended tension.
Being a union supporter at the Ventura, CA Pictsweet plant takes courage, commitment and character. The environment is structured to discourage the determination of the union supporters unwilling to cower under management pressure. Two workers in particular, Lilia Orozco and Fidel Andrade, exemplify the spirit and mission of Cesar Chavez and of nonviolent resistance. These two know the power of truth and continue to speak out and organize despite tremendous personal costs, physical injuries and sustained opposition to their organizing efforts.
Lilia fell and hit her head at work, sustaining a serious bruise and impaired vision. The management sent her to a company-approved physician who said on several occasions that she was healthy, and once that she was “crazy” for making claims that of vision problems. Lilia finally threatened to visit her own doctor, Dr. Manuel Lopez, Mayor of Oxnard. The company doctor re-examined her and found that her optic nerve was nearly severed and required immediate surgery lest she loose complete sight. An expensive operation ensued, and Lilia still battles Pictsweet for repayment of hospital bills.
In June 2001, Fidel Andrade, husband and father of six, was fired after a supervisor accused him of physical assault. After a verbal confrontation, Augustine Villanueva threw mushrooms at Fidel’s basket and brandished his finger in Fidel’s face as a form of intimidation. Because Fidel moved Villanueva’s hand aside, Human Resources Manager Olmos decided to terminate Fidel’s employment based on the company rule of “no fighting in the workplace.”
On January 10, 2002, Agricultural Labor Board Judge Douglas Gallop officially ruled in Fidel’s favor stating that he suffered discrimination on the basis of being an outspoken proponent of UFW representation and that Pictsweet must repay Fidel all back wages and benefits. Days later, lawyers from Bryan Cave LLP, the law firm retained by Pictsweet, filed a 31-point exception to the ruling. On June 4, 2002, a subsequent ruling by the ALRB upheld the January decision, reiterating that Fidel was a model worker, and only after becoming prominent in the unionization of Pictsweet employees was he singled out and fired, in violation of section 1153 (a) and (c) of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act.
In a major legal victory for those working for a union contract at Pictsweet, the company has been censured for firing and retaliating against union supporters. In a major moral victory for the workers, this decision upholds Fidel’s truthful testimony about discrimination at Pictsweet and gives credence to the concerns which are at the heart of why the workers are struggling, namely a means of arbitration for workplace disputes and less potential for capricious firings! Yet despite these two ALRB rulings in January and June, Fidel has not received the mandatory remuneration of back wages and benefits from Pictsweet.
The company maintains that the workers want to break Pictsweet, and that their intent is to harm the company. The workers disagree. “We are proud of our jobs,” reports Fidel Andrade. “We love our wok and take pride in it. We want a good working relationship with the management and we want to see the company prosper.” But not at the expense of human dignity.
The workers want a raise. In the past fourteen years, the mushroom pickers have received penny-by-penny wage increases – but also increase in workload to compensate for the raises.
The workers want safer working conditions. The metal air conditioning piping leaks and drips on workers. When the winter rains flood the buildings with knee-high water, the workers report that some choose to remove their shoes and wade barefoot, enduring splinters and risking their lives as electrical outlets are exposed at ground level. In the two-story building where the mushroom beds are located, there is only one fire escape at ground level, and there is no over-head lighting. Workers must wear helmets with insufficient bulbs to pick mushrooms in the pitch darkness, causing severe eyestrain.
In March 2001, a large compost fire burned out of control at the Pictsweet site for days as hesitating management declined to report the environmentally devastating blaze for fear of the repercussions and community backlash. While Ventura County Public Health Department issued warnings foe several cities- and for the very young, the elderly, those with heart conditions and asthma- the management at Pictsweet neglected health considerations for its workers. Mushroom pickers worked indoors with only flimsy masks to protect their lungs as giant fans sucked the thick toxic smoke into the rooms, nearly suffocating them. The workers were told that if they left work that they might not get paid. Fidel Andrade was among the workers suffering from asthma who was forced financially to continue working despite the risk of physical harm. He was only thinking of his family, his commitment to caring for them and being able to make ends meet.
The workers want a decent medical plan. They currently pay exorbitant deductibles- $150 per family member, per year- plus monthly deductibles, and they have no vision or dental.
Finally, the workers want respect at their job. They want a means of addressing conflicts through arbitration. They want to be heard and understood. They want to be treated as more than beasts of burden by the management that sees them as expendable. They also want justice for the environment. As a result of the nuisance of contaminating the air during the compost fire, Pictsweet was fined $70,0000.00 by the Ventura Air Pollution Control District. Pursuant to the fire, they also were mandated water pollution monitoring systems and submit reports to the Water Quality Control Board, beginning July 2001. As of mid-January 2001, Pictsweet stood in violation for incompliance with that order.
Since September 2000, the UFW has endorsed a boycott of Pictsweet products, gaining support from businesses like Vons, Ralph’s, Olive Garden and Red Lobster. However Pizza Hut (owned by mega-corporation Tricon) refuses to join the boycott.
Pictsweet is a company which believes that its workers, its community and the surrounding water, air and land are its disposal for egregious abuse and misuse. As consumers, we have the power to exercise tremendous influence through our purchasing power and demand corporate accountability. Because the workers’ struggle is nonviolent, anyone- students, family, young people, business owners- can contribute to a more just work environment.
Many communities already support the workers by donating money, by investing time in speaking with businesses who purchase Pictsweet products, and by organizing canned food drives for families hard-hit by the financial impact of their struggle with Pictsweet.
Cesar Chavez, quoting one of his mother’s dichos, said that “He who holds the cow sons sins as much as he who kills her.” While we may not directly approve of worker maltreatment, we must not happily benefit from their oppression by continuing to purchase Pictsweet products, including mushrooms from Pizza Hut.
*Leah C. Wells is a peace educator and freelance journalist. The United Farm Workers office may be contacted at (805) 486-9674.