LOS ANGELES — In a move union leaders say bodes well for farm laborers nationwide, the United Farm Workers signed a contract Thursday with the nation’s largest strawberry employer, ending a five-year struggle to unionize the company’s pickers.
The agreement comes amid efforts by the UFW, best known for its charismatic founder Cesar Chavez, to unionize other agriculture industries and boost sagging membership. Leaders hope workers elsewhere will be inspired by the strawberry pickers’ success, allowing the union to make inroads in places like California’s mushroom fields and vineyards.
“As the agriculture business grows, exploitation of workers gets worse. This is an important statement that says there’s an alternative,” said Art Pulaski, executive secretary-treasurer of the California Labor Federation. “There’s been a significant breakthrough here. So, they will build on this to bigger things.”
Under the agreement with Watsonville-based Coastal Berry Co., the largest single employer of strawberry pickers in the country, more than 750 workers will receive free medical and dental care and a 7 percent pay raise over three years. The contract includes room to negotiate for productivity bonuses.
The agreement, retroactive to Feb. 15, also provides for protection from firings and the establishment of a grievance and arbitration procedure.
Workers will have a week to decide individually if they want to join the union. They will have to resign if they don’t, said UFW President Arturo S. Rodriguez. The union will take 2 percent of the workers’ wages for dues.
Javier Vasquez, a strawberry picker who said he makes about $6.25 an hour at this point in the season, added he expects the contract to improve his working environment and looks forward to having “respect in the place of work.”
There have been “too many firings and a lot of discrimination toward the workers (and) sexual harassment that I saw almost every day,” he said in Spanish through an interpreter. “That’s what motivated me to get involved and to organize my co-workers.”
The union’s ability to organize the Coastal Berry employees should be an inspiration to other workers, Rodriguez said, because strawberry pickers are among the poorest-paid.
California’s fast-growing strawberry industry brings in about $600 million a year.
“As our companies do well and our industries do well, our workers should do well, too,” said Los Angeles mayoral candidate Antonio Villaraigosa, a former union leader himself.
David Gladstone, chairman of Coastal Berry, joined union leaders and pickers at a news conference to sign the agreement as members of other unions stood by waving UFW flags and chanting “si se puede,” Spanish for “yes you can.”
The crowd broke open packages of fresh strawberries and emptied bottles of champagne in celebration.
Gladstone encouraged labor leaders to try to organize pickers at other strawberry companies, noting the wage increases will make it difficult for his company to keep from raising prices. Fifty-three percent of the price of a package of strawberries goes to pay wages, he said.
Coastal Berry’s willingness to negotiate with the union made it difficult at times for the company to lease land and get bank loans, Gladstone said. An industry group even sued the company, he said.
Despite the union leaders’ optimism, one labor expert warned against using the UFW’s success at Coastal Berry as an indicator of its odds for success at other companies.
Gary Chaison, a professor of labor management relations at Clark University in Worcester, Mass., said Coastal Berry was a “friendly employer” that was more willing to work with UFW than the union can expect from other companies.
“I think the UFW contract is probably significant in what it represents not as a turning point for the union ... but an indication of where labor sees itself going,” he said. “They have been trying to show themselves as appealing to the emerging sectors of the work force ... and trying to go back to their old days when they represented disenfranchised workers.”
The victory could be a sign the union known for its successes in the mid-1970s and 1980s is alive and well after years of dwindling membership and financial troubles, he said.
The union has been trying to get a stake in the strawberry industry since 1995, but was slowed by battles with another upstart union along the way. The Coastal Berry of California Farm Workers Committee gained the right to represent Coastal Berry workers in Salinas, while the UFW represents Oxnard workers.