Union hopes bloom in America's strawberry fields

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The Independent Online
The American labour movement may have found new life in the farm fields where John Steinbeck set the Grapes of Wrath.

The United Farm Workers union, born amid bitter battles in the 1960s to fight for better treatment of Mexican migrants, has launched a campaign this summer to unionise an estimated 15,000 strawberry pickers on California's central coast.

The UFW was nearly moribund on the death of its legendary founder, Cesar Chavez, three years ago, but has enjoyed a revival under the leadership of his son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez. One trade union leader has called it "one of the few bright spots" in the US labour movement's recent history.

The campaign, with its threat of strikes and a product boycott, has infuriated growers who produce half of America's strawberry crop. "Their goal is to destroy the strawberry industry," declared Karen Miller, who manages a farm outside Watsonville and blames the UFW for propagating a strawberry food scare earlier this year.

The union has spent $2m (pounds 1.2m) and dispatched 40 full-time organisers to build support across the industry and is putting pressure on growers, coolers and shippers in a $600m business. It is demanding union contracts for fixed hourly and piecework wages, grievance procedures and medical care under a union plan.

Strawberry picking, through a season that lasts more than half the year, is back-breaking work. Workers stoop to pick fruit at the level of their ankles. Strawberries must be hand-picked at the point of ripening, without bruising, and carefully laid in cartons at high speed.

From California they are shipped as far as the UK and Japan. There are stories of sexual harassment, arbitrary sackings and wage cuts, and shots fired over workers' heads. Workers even have been forced to eat green strawberries they picked too early.

The worst abuses are confined to a few growers. But the campaign has caught the imagination of the American press, with its echoes of the civil rights era, when Chavez emerged to champion the poor Spanish-speaking immigrants.

It is believed that at least half the crop workers are illegal, but the union does not ask for papers. Modelled on a successful drive among mushroom pickers last year, if successful, it may swell the UFW's membership by a third. The union's high profile has long depended on the symbolism of the Chavez name rather than due-paying members. But in the waning days of his presidency membership slipped from about 100,000 to a quarter that number.

California's farms depend on cheap migrant labour. Wages have been stagnant, or have fallen, for years; strawberry earnings average about $8,000 a year. But a new breed of better-off worker has also emerged. "In this company we don't need a union," says Jose Sanchez, a home-owner earning up to $15,000 a year as a truck driver on Mrs Miller's farm.

Union officials produced Griselda Ruiz, 18, the mother of a one-year- old boy. She described working for one notorious grower with no breaks and no bathrooms except the bushes, and a foreman who made sexual advances. Jesus Lopez, 43, says his employer has never raised wages beyond $5.50 an hour. He will join the union, even if it costs him and his three sons their jobs.

Antonin C, who says he is 17 but looks three years younger, waits at the corner of a strawberry field for the ride back to his room, shared with five other men, in a dilapidated motel.

A Mixtec Indian from Mexico, he made the journey north about a month ago. The Mixtecs are said to account for a growing number of migrant workers. About a fifth speak no English or Spanish and they often take the lowest-paid jobs.

Antonin holds up a check stub for $150 - pay for a six-day week. He describes a home with seven brothers and sisters in a place where wages were three dollars a day. "With the money we have in Mexico, we don't even have enough to buy clothes," he said.