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Strawberry Fields Become A Fresh Union Battleground

Hollywood stars join 25,000 in march for California berry pickers

Ripe strawberries glisten along almost every road these days in California's central coast.

Squatting in the wide fields are the ubiquitous workers, who shield their heads from the sun with baseball caps and scarves as they pluck the ruby fruit.

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But on April 13 the fields were empty and the roads filled with about 25,000 students, union representatives from across the country, and other activists who marched through this agricultural center south of San Francisco in a bold effort to revive an aggressive style of union organizing not seen since the 1960s and '70s.

Indeed, the campaign launched by the United Farm Workers (UFW) to unionize the 20,000 workers laboring in California's strawberry fields has been backed by the full weight of the AFL-CIO. And the muscle of organized labor was very much on display last weekend. The presence of luminaries - from labor leaders to Hollywood stars and civil rights leader Jesse Jackson - evoked the glory days when Cesar Chavez captured the national imagination by leading the fight for farm workers' rights.

"We were looking to change the culture of the labor movement," says AFL-CIO Secretary-Treasurer Richard Trumka. "We needed a national campaign that everybody could buy into. We picked strawberries."

The reasons American labor picked California's strawberry industry for their campaign are evident: the low wages, poor working conditions, and other indignities suffered by California's largely Mexican farm workers. Also, the crop is highly perishable and thus vulnerable to work stoppages and boycotts.

The campaign itself has two clear aims: to overcome the fears of the strawberry workers and to pressure at least one major grower to break ranks and allow a union to organize. If it fails, UFW leader Arturo Rodriquez, son-in-law of the late Mr. Chavez threatens to "escalate" the campaign. Growers fear that this means boycotts.

"They're trying to force a sweetheart deal on the strawberry industry," says Gary Caloroso, spokesman for the Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance, a pro-industry organization formed to counter union organizing.

But despite the enthusiasm of the thousands who marched April 13, the labor movement has taken on a formidable foe in California agribusiness. The growers and the processing firms have long resisted unionization, and have been relatively successful at doing so since the early 1980s when Republicans gained control of the governorship. While labor unions have generally suffered from a declining membership, the the UFW has been decimated. It fell from a peak of 80,000 members in 1973 to 21,000 a decade later, though it has risen in recent years under the leadership of Arturo Rodriquez.

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Despite a mountain of grievances, farm workers are highly vulnerable. Many are easily replaced, undocumented aliens who fear losing their jobs.

Arturo Arevada, who has worked in the fields since 1985, lost his job this year because he supported the union. "Last year when the union came, they started picking out those supporting the union and those not," he says of his employers. But the father of four remains defiant, waving the Mexican flag and the red banner of the UFW.

Most strawberry workers, however, are like Felipe Rocha, who watched the procession from a safe distance in a city park. "We want the union but we're scared," he said, a baseball cap pulled low over his eyes. "The boss said if we join the union, next year there will be no work."

Growers have backed those words with deeds. The UFW managed to win union elections at three farms but in each case the company plowed under the fields or shut down rather than sign a contract.

While dozens of organizers are in the fields, union leaders are spreading out nationwide to champion their cause. Calling for a wage increase equivalent to adding 5 cents to every pint of berries, the campaign asks supermarket chains to sign a pledge supporting the workers' demands for things like clean drinking water and bathrooms in the fields.

Joanna Evelard's sympathies were aroused. The freshman at the University of California at Berkeley helped organize nine bus loads of students to attend the march in Watsonville. "It's really amazing to see a huge crowd in the movies and then to actually be a part of it," she said.

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