The GV “Employee Handbook”

About two weeks ago, Giumarra Vineyards gave their employees a pleasant little surprise- the Giumarra Vineyards Employee Handbook. However, workers were told to sign the middle page in the employment manual, or they would not receive their checks. Some were told to sign it and then read what it said when they got home. The following is the infamous “middle page” that the workers were coerced into signing, as well as an additional extract from the “Employment at Will” section of the handbook:

Employee Acknowledgement (aka “The Middle Page”)

“I have received my copy of the Company’s Employee Handbook, a summary of the points and areas covered by heat illness training, and, a copy of the Sexual Harassment, and, Discrimination and Harassment publications. I understand and agree that is my responsibility to read and familiarize myself with the policies and procedures contained in the Handbook. I understand that any and all policies or practices can be changed at any time by the Company. The Company reserves the right to change my hours, wages and working conditions at any time. I understand and agree that other than the President of the Company, no person has authority to enter into any agreement, express or implied, for employment for any specific period of time, or to make any agreement for employment other than at-will; only the President of the Company has the authority to make any such agreement and then only in writing. I understand and agree that nothing in the Employee Handbook creates or is intended to create a promise or representation of continued employment and that employment at the Company is employment at-will.; employment may be terminated at the will of either the Company or me.” (GV Employee Handbook, pg.33)

Employment At-Will

“You are free to terminate your employment with the company at any time, with or without cause or reason, just as the Company has the right to terminate your employment at any time, with or without cause or a reason. Although the Company may terminate your employment for cause, it is not required. This policy is called ‘at-will’ employment.” (GV Employee Handbook, pg.2)

Now, there are three key issues involved with this Giumarra Vineyards Employee Handbook. One is the way the Company went about getting workers to sign the handbook, which was essentially through threats and intimidation. Withholding the checks of farm workers who make very little money to begin with, and who depend on their check to support their families, was a nasty tactic employed by the Company. In addition the Company made no attempt to explain to the workers, a good portion of whom are illiterate, what information the Employee Handbook contained nor was an intent made to explain to the workers what exactly the middle page that the workers were coerced into signing was about. This was the first injustice. The second injustice relates to the text within the handbook itself, especially the sections regarding Employment At-Will. These pieces within the Handbook essentially state, in writing, that the Company has the right to fire its employees with or without just cause. Now, given the fact that Giumarra is a company with employees, the power to hire and discharge workers is fully within its jurisdiction. However, given the fact that favoritism and intimidation is highly prevalent in the work environment at Giumarra, workers could be fired for something like sticking up for themselves when their foreman talks down to them.  Family members of the foreman could be violating “company policies” left and right but have a harder time being fired than non-family members who comply to the same policies. La carrilla also has a role to play in this as well. Maybe a worker has been taking “too many” rests or water breaks, isn’t “keeping up with production,” and therefore warrants termination. The bottom line is this- under current company policies Giumarra workers are not protected. And if a worker can be fired with or without just cause, then this policy is not just.  Finally, the third injustice within the Employee Handbook relates to how the workers “understand that any and all policies or practices can be changed at any time by the Company,” and “The Company reserves the right to change my hours, wages and working conditions at any time.” Rhetorically, what does this statement intend to say? It is basically telling the workers that the Company has all the power. The company controls the policies, working conditions, wages, and hours, and they can change them whenever they want. Once again, this policy is fully within Giumarra’s jurisdiction, given that it is a company. But more than anything, this is an attempt by te Guimarra to mask who has the real power in the company-employee relationship.  The Company cannot survive without its workers. Who sprays the grapes with pesticides to protect them from diseases? Who clears away the dried leaves from the vines so the grapes can ripen and mature in the sun? Who supervises the irrigation of the crops? Who packs the grapes so that they can be bought by consumers in the supermarket? Heck for that matter who loads up the trucks so that the grape boxes can even be brought to the supermarkets? Farm workers. If 1, 500 farm workers did not enter the fields for 8, 9, 10 hours six days a week, the grapes would rot on the vines in Guimarra’s weed-ravaged fields and this multi-million dollar Company would lose all its profits. And this is why organizing and the Union is so important. It’s time to shift the power balance to those who really have the power.

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Taking Access

During this summer I’ve had the opportunity to take access in some of the fields around the area. “Taking access” means that during the farm workers’ breaks the union can enter the fields and talk with the workers, and/or get them to sign union authorization cards. For me this is one of the major highlights of my day, because taking access is such an adrenaline rush! There is a very minimal amount of time for a few organizers to try and reach out to crews with large numbers of people, and it can be quite the mad-dash. But it’s the best feeling in the world. That’s one of the aspects I really love about working for the union. Everyday I have to interact with new people I’ve never met before, and quite frankly I have to have the confidence to talk with them like I already know them or like they’re already my friend. This happens during house visits and juntas too. It’s a strategy a lot of the organizers tell me that they use when they’re trying to get union support from their crews, and I think it’s rubbed off on me. I’m usually pretty antisocial when it comes to introductions and small talk with new people. But it’s important to gain the trust of the worker, especially considering the fact that when they sign the authorization card to some extent they’re putting their job (and consequently their family) at risk. There is a necessary bond that needs to be formed between us. The fact that we are both human beings is sufficient enough for us to get to know each other.  But the understanding that we’re both talking to each other because we believe in the same just cause makes the interaction all the more powerful.

Take our Jobz

Recently, the UFW has gained quite a lot of national attention for their “Take our Jobs” campaign. This is a campaign in which the UFW has invited unemployed Americans to come and work in the fields and do the same kind of work that many undocumented immigrants are supposedly “taking away” from other American citizens. Out of 5,000 applicants, only three have managed to actually begin working in the fields, and they are making $10 an hour in Texas (compare that to the $8 an hour migrant farm workers are making here in California!). A reporter from a local news station decided to take up the UFW’s offer, but she could only manage to work in the fields for a mere two hours. Steve Colbert is up next (UFW president Arturo Rodriguez was featured on the Colbert Report, here’s the link: http://www.colbertnation.com/full-episodes/thu-july-8-2010-arturo-rodriguez), we’ll see how he does.

Basically, the point that I’m trying to make is putting aside the abuse, intimidation, and pressure, the very nature of agricultural working conditions are difficult. For starters, it’s very hot. Here in the central valley of California summer temperatures hover around the mid to upper nineties on average, and during July (when the harvest starts) the heat gets especially intense with temperatures rising as high as 115 degrees. Many of the workers tell me that they are already bathed in sweat by the time of their late morning lunch break. In addition to the heat, workers must also deal with the effects of pesticides being sprayed on the crops they pick. As Don Ivan explained to me on the way back from his leaders’ meeting, “we have to work underneath the vines and the sulfur dust from the chemicals they put on the grapes gets in our eyes. We can’t wear glasses to protect our eyes because they would slip off when we sweat.”  Besides the heat and the chemicals, there are also just certain facts about the industry. Picking grapes is oriented around production. So either way there is going to be a certain amount of pressure to work as quickly and efficiently of possible. Of course the UFW is fighting to have workers work at a manageable and not mechanic pace, but even this would still require a significantly fast rate of production among the workers. Combine this with the long hours (8-10) that they put in each day, and it becomes pretty obvious that farm work is definitely not easy. This is why I have so much respect for the farm workers and the work they accomplish on a daily basis. I honestly don’t think I’d be able to last for two hours doing what they do for the whole day. Many of the farm workers I talked to have been working for Guimarra for 3, 5, 10, or even 25 years, and the fact that they still have the courage to continue doing what they do day in and day out, while fighting for their rights, is honorable and admirable.

Unfortunately, I’d like to now talk about some of the ways in which the company takes advantage of its workers. Even though Guimarra is a multi-million dollar company, with branches in set up in Chile, Mexico, and Peru, they still seem to find it necessary to financially cut corners to the detriment of its workers. For example, if it’s raining the company demands that the workers show up to work. The company then makes the workers spend up to three to four hours waiting for the rain to stop. If the rain stops then the workers enter the fields and begin working but if it doesn’t stop then the company sends all the workers home. However, the workers are not paid for the three or four hours that they spent waiting for the rain to stop, even though the company required them to be there. Add this to the fact that workers are required to spend their own time and resources washing their picking bins as well as show up to work 15 minutes early without pay, and this is adds up to a serious amount of money that the company is unjustly taking away from its workers. Migrant farm worker families can’t afford this. Just like any other typical American family, they have bills to pay, daily living expenses, and mouths to feed. How ironic is it that the very people who work so hard picking the produce that lies on our dining room table have to struggle just to do the same for their own families?

Reality Check

I’ve been here with the UFW for almost a month now, and along with learning about all the organizing techniques, farm worker stories, campaign strategies, etc. I have also begun to learn about… (cue corny music) myself. For just as the grapes on the vine are coming to their maturity and ripeness, I too am undergoing personal growth as these summer months pass by…WOW, just kidding I’m not that big of a sap. But Anywho, working here has made me come to some realizations about myself that I never knew about before. For example, I never thought of myself as privileged. But now I understand that I am. Just having an education is a privilege. When I get introduced by the organizers to the workers, I am always known as “la estudiante,” like it’s a job title or something. But now I realize that for the overwhelming majority of the farm workers, and indeed some of the organizers themselves, education is a privilege that many of them never got the opportunity to have. To be completely honest, I never had considered myself to be that privileged. By no stretch of the imagination am I saying that I came from a low income background, because I didn’t. But my parents’ combined income is under $50,000, and a huge chunk of my Mac education is paid by government financial aid.  And just because I wasn’t super rich I didn’t assume I was privileged or recognize the privileges I had. But my privilege is evident everywhere: it’s in the ipod I listen to as I work, it’s in my personal laptop that I bring to the office, my ability to fluently speak English,  it’s in the fact that I am able to go to college. Even being born a citizen of the United States marks my more privileged background. Plus, the fact that whenever privilege is talked about in academia, or at least at Macalester, it’s almost always in terms of “white privilege,” which really threw me off. So here I was thinking, “all right, I’m not privileged, I’m tan, my dad’s from Panama, I should be able to fit right in with these people.”  But this, my friends, was my ignorant assumption based off of 21 years of growing up in middle-class white-majority Minnesota. Neither the color of my skin, nor the ethnic background of my father have or could make it any easier for me to assimilate to this different environment. Here, the vast majority of the workers and organizers are Mexicans. They are immigrants. Many of them are undocumented. And they are making less money than my family does in order to support their own families, or have to split their incomes between expenses here in the United States and remittances being sent back to their relatives in Mexico. How in the freaking world did I think I would just be able to come here and “fit in?” Granted, everybody on the organizing team is really nice, real cool, and hella fun, and me ‘n these guys get along like peanut butter and jelly (…or chile and limon, take your pick)- but still there are certain instances when my privilege comes out, and it challenges me to rethink about how I saw and currently see myself.

                But anywho, another thing I have come to terms with is that I know absolutely completely nothing. Before coming here, I never realized how little I knew. For example, when I was doing house visits with one of the organizers, we started talking about politics a bit and the topic of welfare was brought up. Being the flaming liberal that I am, I was like of course we need welfare because the purpose of the state/government is to provide a social safety net for its population, our tax dollars contribute to the greater good, welfare improves people’s lives, blah blah blah. But much to my surprise, the organizer I was with held more conservative views and was totally against welfare. He gave the whole “pull yourself up by your bootstraps, waste of tax dollars, government handouts, people take advantage of the system” speal. Naturally I got pissed as hell, so we started going at it. But as we were debating, he provided personal anecdotes of what he had experienced growing up in a low-income community to support his arguments. As much as I disagreed with him, I couldn’t do that. This is what I mean by knowing absolutely nothing. I was born in a middle class neighborhood, I went to good public schools, I speak English, and I am a citizen of the United States. What do I know about escaping poverty as a Spanish-speaking non-US citizen Mexican immigrant? What do I know about growing up in a low-income community where me and all my neighbors receive food stamps and government assistance programs? I thought I knew. I thought I had it all figured out. But hearing it from someone who had actually lived it really made me question on what basis I was making my assumptions. That said, however, I still uphold my same principals and liberal viewpoints with respect to social issues such as welfare. And at the end of the day, the root cause of our disagreement came down to whether we tackled welfare and issues of poverty from an individual (him) or societal (me) level. But this lil debate, combined with all the other discussions/experiences I’ve had so far have really made me start to wonder…how much do I really know?

P.S. I don’t mean this in a bad way like I’m calling myself stupid or anything, but have you ever just sat in your room and seriously contemplated about all the things you don’t know? REALITY CHECK.

The Nitty Gritty

In order to understand what’s going on with me and all my adventures with the union, some background information is neccesary. Soooooo….here’s the scoop:

Working Conditions

There is a lot of carrilla, or pressure to get work done, so the supervisors yell at the workers to pick the grapes at a very fast rate. And if a worker is falling behind or going a bit slow, then they are told to take the rest of the day off. For the farm worker, this means a loss of money because they will have lost the hours that they would have had working the rest of the day. In addition, the farm workers working for Guimarra are making minimum wage with no benefits. Sometimes the workers are forced to work on their knees. During one of the house visits I went on, one of the workers for Guimarra talked about this and how she didn’t like working on her knees in the fields because she has seen what it does to older workers once they age- a lot of them have bad knees, arthritis, or have to walk with a cane.  For these reasons, among many others, the Union is trying to organize the workers.

Union Elections

Now, for a little information on how organizing and unions work. In order for farm workers to be represented by a union, they have to sign union authorization cards. Authorization cards indicate the worker’s desire to be represented by a union.  Once these authorization cards are collected, they will be presented to the Agricultural Labor Relations Board. If the ALRB sees that there is enough support among the workers for a union election to be held, then an election will take place. In the election, 50% + 1 of the total number of workers currently employed by the company must vote in favor of being represented by the union (in this case, the UFW) in order for the union to win the election. If the union wins the election, the farm workers will then be represented by the union and can negotiate contracts with the company establishing better working conditions, improved wages, vacation days, benefits, etc.

Guimarra

Guimarra is the largest table grape grower company in the United States. This is why winning a union election is so important. It will set a standard for the industry and put the UFW on a path in which other union contracts can be won. However, just as the UFW is doing a campaign to organize the workers, Guimarra is also launching a campaign to make sure that the workers don’t organize. Guimarra’s campaign is tri-fold: a campaign of love, threats and lies. The campaign of love consists of the company improving the working conditions in the fields right before the elections are held, and pushing the company’s slogan that at Guimarra “we’re all family.” The campaign of threats consists of the company intimidating workers. Guimarra has also been sending the workers home early from work and blaming it on the union, or saying that “if you get involved with the union, then hours will be cut.” The campaign of lies consists of Guimarra spreading lies about the union, such as if workers vote for the union then half of their check will go toward quotas and union dues (members only pay dues of 3%).

A Little FYI

From what I’ve observed, there is a lot of awareness among consumers about the pesticides and harmful sprays that get put onto the fruits and vegetables that we buy from the grocery store (hence all the halabaloo about “organic foods”). And without a doubt, the movement to end GM foods and harmful pesticides is important. But often what gets left out of the picture are the human stories behind the foods we eat as well. It needs to be recognized that the produce we buy from the grocery store, which gives us nourishment so that we as human beings can live, is the product of another human being’s work.  When we go to the grocery store and buy something so simple such as grapes, strawberries, or mushrooms, the complex story of exploitation and abuse is hidden from us. It is our responsibility as global citizens to recognize this fact, inform ourselves about it and take proactive steps toward changing the situation. In other words- boycott Guimarra/Nature’s Partner produce! You’ve been informed, and now you can utilize your power as a consumer to not buy their grapes, and consequentially demonstrate your support for the migrant farm workers.

Going back to my earlier point I’d like to share a story that I learned about while working here with the UFW. Two workers were spraying pesticides in the fields of Guimarra. However, the backpacks containing the spray that the workers were using were torn in the back and so the spray was leaking onto the backs of the workers. Furthermore, the spray that the company had the workers using was an especially potent pesticide that should only be sprayed on the crops via airplane. The incident was reported, but the company was only fined $2,000. As Armando, the Vice President of the union stated, this amounted to nothing more than “a slap on the wrist” for Guimarra. This is a story that needs to be told. You can go to www.ufw.org  to find out which companies are working under union contract, and which companies are not. Please keep this in mind the next time you go to the grocery store.

La Lucha Sigue! My first week with the UFW

Get off the airplane. Meet UFW organizer. Drop my stuff of at the hotel. Go do worker house visits. Attend organizing meeting for farm workers. Get dinner with the UFW vice president. This describes my first eight hours in Bakersfield, CA, and if any thing these first eight hours gave me a small dose of what I’d be in for this summer. I’ve been here for slightly over a week now, and if there’s one thing I’ve observed it’s that these organizers folks are some of the most hardest working people I’ve ever had the privilege of meeting! Right now, the UFW is pushing their organizing campaign into high gear. This means that the organizers are working like 10-12 hour days, seven days a week! It’s amazing, I’ve already learned so much already about how union elections work, California labor laws, working conditions in the fields, the scoop on the Company they’re organizing against, and the history of past organizing campaigns. With regard to working conditions, many of the farm workers feel a lot of pressure (“la carrilla”) from their supervisors to be working as quickly and efficiently as possible. Many of them don’t get breaks, and don’t want to go get water or take a brief rest because they’ll fall behind. It puts a lot of stress on the workers, and it can also put them in danger since the temperatures hover around the upper nineties basically everyday here in the valley. For this reason, in addition to many others, the UFW is trying to organize the workers- so that they can be represented and negotiate a contract with Guimarra so that these working conditions can change.  With respect to the UFW, one thing that I have observed (in spite of my short time being here) is how the movement is really driven from the base. Nearly all the organizers themselves have worked as migrant farm workers in the fields, and so they speak from the heart and with experience when trying to organize the workers of Guimarra. Furthermore, what really moved me was how much the farm workers currently employed by Guimarra are incorporated into the organization efforts of the UFW. The workers’ meeting I attended was a junta for all the farm worker leaders that were working toward organizing everyone in their cuadrilla, or working crew. This means that not only is the UFW organizing by having their organizers go do house visits, but also by having workers themselves organize their fellow workers while out in the fields, which I think is a great and powerful aspect of the movement.  Anyways, I have rambled on enough, and so I will end here. Hopefully this provides a brief picture of my first experiences and impressions of Bakersfield and la lucha for the migrant farm workers!