Organizer Stories: DoleBerry

As part of my live it project I’ve not only had to interview farm workers but also UFW organizers as well. Nearly all of the organizers are farm workers and many of them come from companies that already signed union contracts. Needless to say, this makes for some fascinating personal stories on the organizers’ part. Here’s an insight into two of these stories from Juan Ruiz and Viviana Dominguez, both of whom worked picking strawberries for DoleBerry:

Juan Ruiz*

Juan  started working for Costal Berry right when the union was in the midst of its organizing campaign with this major strawberry growing company. He remembers that organizing “was not easy, there were many who were in favor but also others that conformed [to the company]. Many people were afraid to go against their foremen or supervisors.”

Before the union entered at Costal Berry, Juan says that there had been a lot of carrilla and favoritism. The workers had to reach high quotas for the boxes of strawberries picked, and if they didn’t they were chastised by the foremen. The company also daily made a list of all the workers, with the most productive workers being at the top of the list and the least productive workers being at the bottom. If a worker was at the bottom of the list, they had a couple of days to improve their position or they would get fired the next week. These lists were posted in visible places such as the bathrooms so that the workers would see them everyday and be reminded that they needed to work faster.  Juan noted that it made things especially difficult for older workers. As aforementioned, favoritism was prevalent at the workplace. The foreman got to decide which workers would be allowed to continue working, and consequently continue earning, after the harvest finished. Only family members and close friends of the foreman got to keep working into the off-peak season. Furthermore, coveted positions such as truck driver, carrier, counter or tractor driver were reserved for younger attractive women, or “los barbies” as Juan described them. The foreman gave these positions to these types of women in exchange for dates. Juan said that before the union entered his company, the carrilla and favoritism were natural elements of the workplace. But after a union election was won in 2001 and the contract was signed, things changed for the better. Now there is senority at the company and a system is set up where those who have been working the longest at the company have first access to higher up positions and off-season work. Wages also increased and benefits were improved. Before, Juan was indecisive about supporting the union. But his father as well as a union organizer (who he still remembers to this day) convinced him to support the organizing efforts of his fellow workers. In 2009, Juan participated in the renegotiation of the union contract with Dole Berry (Costal Berry was purchased later purchased by Dole, but the workers, as well as the previously negotiated contract, were kept in place). He is now an organizer for the union’s campaign with Guimarra. “Now as an organizer I come back and see in some of the workers exactly how I was before and it gives me more motivation. Before I thought I couldn’t, but now I know that Si Se Puede!”  he says.

Viviana Dominguez*

Viviana began working for Coastal Berry, the strawberry company that would later become Dole-Berry, in 1994. “When I started I didn’t want anything with the union” she said. But Viviana saw that the union was continuing to organize. Viviana decided to ask her forewoman if it was better to work under union contract or with the company. The forewoman told her “You should go with the union because the company is only going to give you a kick in the butt and with the union you can have better wages and benefits.” After this Viviana was convinced and started getting involved with the union. Unionizing the strawberry workers of Coastal Berry was a very heated and contentious campaign. Some of the workers wanted to organize and some of them didn’t, so Viviana remembers the foremen and supervisors actively encouraging the workers to fist-fight in the fields, as a way to disunite the workers. She also remembers how she and her fellow workers went field by field gathering people and then forming a human blockade in front of the cooling building where the strawberries were kept. As a result of this act of protest, Viviana and all the workers that participated in the blockade were fired the next day. However the workers, with the help of the union, went to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board and were able to get their jobs back. After a long and arduous struggle, Coastal Berry workers finally won a contract with the UFW in 2001. Viviana recalls that it was not easy. “We were sad, badly treated, the company fired us from work, and they didn’t help us with anything. But we won.” Viviana has experienced first-hand the changes in work conditions that a union contract can bring. Before when it rained she had to work picking strawberries in wet fields in which the water was mid-calve high. The strawberry inspector was disrespectful to Viviana and would persistently damage the strawberries in the boxes she picked so that the entire box would be no good. She also remembers herself and her coworkers being pushed and herded like animals into the truck that drove them to and from work. Now under union contract things have changed. There is respect at the workplace, and she enjoys increased wages and benefits.

*name has been changed

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