Published in the Ventura County Star

The goal is not to bring your enemies to their knees but to their senses. — Mahatma Gandhi

Jim Lawson, the man who spent two years at Gandhi’s ashram studying nonviolent movements and who was responsible for desegregating the Nashville lunch counters through sit-ins and boycotts, says that violence has a simple dynamic: “I make you suffer until you say ‘uncle.’ ”

Such are the tactics of Pictsweet toward its pro-union workers.

The management at Pictsweet — led by General Manager Ruben Franco, Human Resources Manager Gilbert Olmos and the minion managers who oversee the various departments — are trying to bring the workers who want United Farm Workers representation and a contract with Pictsweet to their knees and strong-arm them into submission, to break their spirit and determination.

On June 4, the Agricultural Labor Relations Board corroborated the anti-union practices at Pictsweet in a ruling that crescendos a similar ruling from Jan. 10. Both in January and this month, the ALRB upheld section 1152 of the Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which states that workers have the right to self-organization and forming, joining and assisting labor organizations. The ALRB found that Pictsweet is in violation of section 1153 (a) and (c) by way of interfering with the aforementioned rights as well as discriminating against workers who engage in pro-union activities.

Enter Fidel Andrade. He was fired on May 31 as a result of engaging in protected activities a few days earlier — standing up for a co-worker, union movement leader Jesus Torres.

In defending Andrade’s actions, the ALRB cited the provocation doctrine, which “prohibits an employer from provoking an employee to the point where he commits an indiscretion or insubordinate act and then relying on that indiscretion to discipline him.”

In its ruling, the ALRB also pointed out that “it is apparent that management seized the May 27 incident as an opportunity to rid itself of an employee that union leader Torres characterized as his ‘right-hand.’ ”

Last week, the ALRB ruled that not only was the termination of Andrade’s employment excessive punishment, but that Pictsweet routinely practices singling out union supporters. Pictsweet management already had its eye on Andrade, as he gave an interview to The Star after the compost fire last year, commenting that the fire aggravated his asthma and that he wished the company would give workers time off with pay while the fire was extinguished.

Discrimination of this magnitude is commonplace at Pictsweet, which is owned by United Foods, Inc., a corporation based in Bells, Tenn., with policies rooted in plantation governance. The treatment of Pictsweet workers in Ventura shows an atavistic Civil War-era mentality where working conditions are treacherous and the work force disposable.

Workers at Pictsweet are struggling for a contract that will provide for a means of arbitration in the case of disputes like the one on May 27. They want the law to work for them in protecting their rights and their jobs. They want a better salary, more than the 48 cents per basket they currently make; they want better health benefits so that they do not have to pay $150 per family member per year before insurance covers their medical costs. They want a pension plan so that, upon retirement, they have something to show for their commitment to Pictsweet and their hard work. Most of all, however, they want respect and a voice at work.

The management at Pictsweet claims that the workers themselves are trying to bring the company to its knees rather than its senses.

They claim that the boycott, which was called in September 2000, intends to hurt the company. So far, it has hurt Pictsweet: The company has lost millions in contracts with businesses like Ralph’s, Vons and Costco, and it continues to throw away tens of thousands of pounds of mushrooms every week rather than negotiate fairly for a contract with its workers.

Gandhi taught that boycotts are a means of nonviolent persuasion that oppressed people can use to bring people to their senses. While successful, the Pictsweet boycott still needs support from the public, especially against mushrooms at Pizza Hut, to win a contract.
*Leah C. Wells serves as peace education coordinator for the Nuclear Age Peace Foundation. The United Farm Workers may be reached at 486-9674.