Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, North America

U.S.-LABOUR: Farm Workers Win First Union Contract in Washington State

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Nov 20 1995 (IPS) - On the union hall stage, below the sign reading “Live Better, Work Union,” hung a white banner with big red letters flanked by black Aztec eagles: “RESPETO.” In front of the stage stood a simple shrine to Cesar Chavez, late leader of the United Farm Workers Union: two candles, a bottle of wine, and another banner: “Campesinos Unidos de Washington.”

The crowd sang along with the musicians, “Si se puede, it can be done, none can deny your dreams for your daughters and sons,” as the farm workers movement and supporters celebrated a rare victory.

At a time when unions represent only 15.5 percent of the U.S. workforce, a small group of mainly Mexican vineyard workers had won the first collective-bargaining agreement in the history of Washington state agriculture. After an eight-year boycott of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines, the winery’s owner, Stimson Lane Ltd, had agreed to sign a contract with the United Farm Workers of America (UFWA), the union’s first outside of California.

Rosalinda Guillen, the union’s regional director, recalled how workers on the negotiating committee had spent hours helping to draft contract language. “Cesar had a little prayer where he said, ‘God, help me to take responsibility of my own life,’ ” said Guillen. “A collective-bargaining agreement is exactly that: it’s a worker taking responsibility of his own life and writing a legal document that is going to define his daily worklife.”

While farming in the fertile valleys from California up through Washington, is dominated by large corporations and industrial agriculture, most farm labourers and their families live and work in pockets of underdevelopment.

Washington farm workers must support their families on wages well below half the state’s median income, and down 25 percent in real terms 1987. Life expectancy for farm workers is 49 years — reduced from a national average of 72 years by exposure to pesticides and dangerous working conditions.

Although some states have agricultural labour laws, Washington law denies farm workers collective-bargaining rights. When the state legislature recently passed universal health-care legislation, farm workers were excluded, just as they were from minimum wage and overtime protections in the past.

“We did not have to have a law to do this,” said Guillen. “We created the law. We have to forget about the American government and the Mexican government and borders, and organise ourselves to negotiate directly with who really has the power, which is the boss.”

“Chateau Ste. Michelle is a transnational corporation: it’s owned by U.S. Tobacco, it has capital that moves across borders. And our people move across borders also. Our flag is the union flag, our country is the union, our constitution is the collective bargaining agreement.”

The key to the union victory, said Guillen, was the eight-year boycott of Chateau Ste. Michelle wines. Mark Jennings, a spokesman at Stimson Lane disputed this, calling the brand’s sales “healthy” through the boycott.

A critical element of the boycott, according to Guillen, was “personal contact between supporters and workers,” including visits by farm workers to cities and by urban boycott backers to agricultural areas. Central to the union strategy was developing a core of worker-negotiators, who spent hours learning legal language and studying other labour contracts so they could negotiate more effectively and educate the rest of the workers on the issues.

The union and the company finally came to terms April 28 in the Washington, DC headquarters of the AFL-CIO, the national union federation. They agreed to hold union representation elections and, to oversee the process, they convened a five-member labour- industry commission, chaired by former Speaker of the U.S. House of Representatives Tom Foley.

A model for the settlement, Jennings said, came from an agreement between giant Campbell Soup Company and the Farm Labor Organising Committee in Ohio. This accord set up an independent commission of academic, religious and labor leaders who oversaw negotiations.

In the June 2 secret ballot, the winery’s full-time employees voted 53-33 for the union. On October 31, the union and the company signed a one-and-a- half-year contract stipulating a 5.5 percent wage increase, dental coverage, and a pension plan for full-time workers. Eighty-four seasonal employees received a 6.5 percent raise and, after 800 hours of work, will also qualify for benefits.

According to the company, employees already had a company- sponsored medical plan, paid holidays, and up to five weeks of paid vacation. The union said that the most important gains were in the seniority system for full-time and temporary workers and increased job security. The contract, it said, also greatly improved the existing medical and pension plans.

The winery’s predominantly white and better-paid bottlers and truckers were already represented by the Teamsters Union and covered by federal labour law.

Jennings called the contract “fair.” On the question of its renewal beyond its May 1997 expiration, he said, “I don’t see any issue there.”

The new worker-leaders developed by the union will now organise elections for a worker board to administer the contract, Guillen said. They are also moving help UFWA organising efforts. When other farm workers ask questions, “now these workers are saying, ‘Well, wait a minute, that happened to us once and this is what we did.’ They consider this contract a blessing, so they consider it their obligation to give back because of what they’ve received.”

The union is looking next at building on its victory by organising other wine grape vineyards. The future could hold organising efforts in Washington’s extensive apple orchards, Guillen suggested. Washington produces about 80 percent of the apples in the world’s export trade.

Although many agricultural firms continue to oppose unions, according to the Wall Street Journal, some growers believe that direct accords between companies and unions might be preferable to legislative intervention. Industry sources quoted by the Seattle Weekly, however, portrayed the union victory as a unique case, made possible by the visibility of the winery’s brand name and its “political[ly] liberal” chief executive. They said that boycotts would not work against non-brand-name crops.

The contract at Chateau Ste. Michelle is part of a wave of organising by the California-based UFWA, according to president Arturo Rodriguez. Since May 1994, he said, the union has won 12 elections and signed 10 new contracts nationally.

Rodriguez saw the process and accord as important precedents for farm workers in other states who have no collective bargaining rights. “It gives workers a sense of hope and faith and belief that it can be done,” he said.

In October, Rodriguez was elected to the AFL-CIO’s Executive Council, the first time farm workers have had a seat. The new AFL- CIO leader, John Sweeney, has pledged to devote more time and money to organising low-wage workers and added new Council positions for minorities and women. Rodriguez said farm workers will now have a direct voice in how funds are allocated and organising campaigns targeted.

Given Republican control of Congress and many statehouses, Rodriguez saw little chance for labour law reform in the near future. “We don’t wait for policy-makers to determine the fate of farm workers,” he said. “We’re just going to go out there where we think we have a good opportunity for getting a contract and make that happen one way or another.”

 
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Economy & Trade, Headlines, Labour, North America

U.S.-LABOUR: Farm Workers Win First Union Contract in Washington State

Peter Costantini

SEATTLE, Nov 20 1995 (IPS) - On the union hall stage, below the sign reading “Live Better, Work Union,” hung a white banner with big red letters flanked by black Aztec eagles: “RESPETO.” In front of the stage stood a simple shrine to Cesar Chavez, late leader of the United Farm Workers Union: two candles, a bottle of wine, and another banner: “Campesinos Unidos de Washington.”
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