NOW Joins Fight for Strawberry Pickers' Rights


by Loretta A. Kane
Field Director

Photo: NOW President Patricia Ireland, AFL-CIO President John Sweeney and United Farm Workers President Arturo Rodriguez, workers and supporters launched a campaign to support workplace rights for strawberry pickers.

NOW has joined other progressive organizations in a United Farm Workers campaign to obtain basic workplace rights for some 20,000 California strawberry pickers. Drawing on a strategy introduced by farm labor organizer Cesar Chavez, the pickers are seeking public support for their campaign.

According to the UFW, strawberry pickers face horrendous working conditions. They stoop in fields for 10 to 12 hours a day and average only $8,000 in wages per season, which lasts six to eight months. The workers are exposed to hazardous insecticides, suffer back injuries caused by the grueling work, lack clean drinking water and are forced to use inadequate, unsanitary bathroom facilities. Most of the workers lack health insurance or job security. Women workers suffer an additional abuse: sexual harassment.

One worker, Antonia Carillo, claims she was verbally and sexually harassed by her supervisor. Carillo said he repeatedly asked her for dates, made vulgar comments at work, and harassed her by phone at her home. Carillo maintains that the more she rejected his advances, the worse things became. Her supervisor criticized her work and continued to sexually harass her.

"I experienced great mental pain and anguish," Carillo said. According to Carillo, when she reported the sexual harassment to an immediate supervisor, he instructed her to ignore it. Unable to cope with the constant abuse and inhospitable workplace, Carillo quit her job and lost the only means of support for herself and her children.

"Just as we stand against sexual harassment in boardrooms, on assembly lines and in schools, we must speak out on behalf of women in the fields," said NOW President Patricia Ireland. "Strawberry pickers work long hours to put food on our tables, only to be sexually harassed, underpaid and denied basic essentials like clean water and bathrooms. We must band together and demand justice for the strawberry workers."

Strawberry workers voted to unionize through the UFW in secret balloting in 1989, 1994 and 1995. The UFW said strawberry companies responded by firing pickers, plowing under strawberries and selectively shutting down operations to thwart the workers efforts to organize.

The workers seek five basic rights: a living wage, an end to sexual harassment, clean drinking water and bathrooms, health insurance and job security.

NOW activists can help by signing a pledge for strawberry workers rights and by asking grocery store managers also to sign pledges in support of the workers. The pledge calls for an end to worker abuse and demands the five basic rights. "Public outrage and support helped mushroom pickers negotiate improved working conditions and better wages without a boycott, and we now have an opportunity to help stop the abuses in the strawberry industry," Ireland said. "I encourage every NOW member to sign the pledge for strawberry workers rights."

The UFW is organizing a mass protest in support of the pickers. On April 13, an estimated 20,000 people will march for strawberry workers' rights in Watsonville, Calif., the self-described strawberry capital of the United States.

For more information or for copies of the pledge, please contact the NOW Action Center at 202-331-0066 or visit NOW's web site at http://www.now.org/issues/economic/strawberry/.


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