With just four weeks to go, organized labor's attention is increasingly focused on Watsonville, Calif., where on Sunday, April 13, as many as 20,000 union members and community activists will demonstrate their solidarity with the massive drive by the United Farm Workers to organize strawberry workers.
The campaign is a national priority for the AFL-CIO, and is backed by state labor federations and central labor councils throughout the country. Most strawberries shipped in the U.S. come from California, and especially from the Central Coast region around Watsonville.
Sales of this increasingly profitable crop hit $650 million last year, but the 20,000 workers who harvest the berries don't share the wealth. These men and women spend up to 12 hours a day stooping over the low-growing plants, for pay that averages a meager $8,500 a year. In fact, the workers' share of every dollar spent on strawberries declined from 17.5 cents to 9 cents between 1985 and 1995.
Strawberry workers have no job security. Working conditions are harsh and hazardous, including pesticides, discrimination and sexual abuse by overseers, and lack of basic necessities such as clean toilets and cool, fresh drinking water.
As a warm-up for the big march, farm workers and community activists have been fanning out in target cities in California and elsewhere, pressing supermarket chains to pledge support for strawberry workers' rights. A number of big chains, including Ralph's - a major food chain in California and the country's sixth largest - have done so.
On a recent sunny Sunday morning, groups gathered in several cities to visit stores in the Lucky chain, which has not yet pledged its backing for the workers. Teams leafletted Lucky patrons, asking them to call the chain's management, urging the giant corporation to sign on. Many customers promised to call, and several asked how they, too, could become active in the campaign.
In Oakland, one group of strawberry workers told what it's like to work the fields. Wages hover around the minimum, they said, while after the peak season, meeting the quota of boxes the growers demand can be impossible. In rainy weather workers can be called in at 7 a.m. and made to wait for hours without pay before it is decided whether work will proceed. Workers who have spent gas money to get to the job end up in the hole. Workers are not provided with raincoats, or with protective gear for working with pesticides.
Very few workers have any health benefits, and if they are injured on the job - as was one worker who fell backwards in a muddy field - the bosses usually claim the injury occurred elsewhere. Workers are often told either to pay for their own treatment or keep quiet about the injury.
For years, strawberry workers have sought to organize, but their efforts have repeatedly been beaten back by the growers and the eight large corporations that "cool" and distribute the fruit. Growers have plowed their fields under and moved to other sites after workers have voted for union representation.
For this reason, this time the Farm Workers Union is campaigning industry-wide, and is pressing the eight "cooler" corporations to convince the growers to negotiate a nationwide agreement to improve the workers' lives.
The campaign's slogan - "5 cents for fairness" - is based on independent estimates that raising the price of a pint of berries by just 5 cents could boost workers' pay by at least 50 percent.
The labor movement is joined in this struggle by the National Strawberry Commission for Workers' Rights, made up of individuals and leaders from over 40 organizations including the NAACP, the National Organization for Women and the Sierra Club.
The Farm Workers Union and the AFL-CIO are calling for maximum participation in the April 13 march in Watsonville. Unions are organizing buses throughout the region. For transportation information, and ways you can help the campaign, call your central labor council or local UFW office.
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