Activists March for Strawberry Workers Rights

Workers Sign First Union Contract

by Lisa Bennett-Haigney, Managing Editor
Marching in the front line in New York City for strawberry workers' rights were (third from left to right): Sandra Rocha, a strawberry worker who traveled from California for the march,holding her daughter Jaqueline; Gloria Steinem; Dolores Huerta, co-founder and Secretary Treasurer of the United Farm Workers; Candelaria Clanas, strawberry worker; Karen Johnson, NOW Membership V.P.; and Mike Goodwin, President of the Office & Professional Employees International Union. Photo courtesy of Karen Johnson. NOW President Patricia Ireland and local NOW chapter members joined activists in San Francisco to march for the rights of California strawberry workers. These workers are subject to low pay, no benefits, horrible working conditions, sexual harassment and discrimination. Marching are (left to right): Oscar Sanchez, National Executive, Labor Council for Latin American Advancement; Dolores Huerta, co-founder and Secretary Treasurer, United Farm Workers (UFW); Ireland; Arturo Rodriguez, President, UFW; Linda Chavez-Thompson, Executive V.P., AFL-CIO; politician Jerry Brown; and Richard Chavez. Photo by Nicolette Toussaint.
On March 28, 29 and 31 the United Farm Workers (UFW) organized marches in New York City, San Antonio, San Francisco, Los Angeles and Chicago to demand workplace rights for California strawberry workers.

And just three weeks later workers with Swanton Berry Farms became the first strawberry pickers to sign a union contract with the United Farm Workers.

The UFW, NOW and other progressive organizations launched the Strawberry Workers Campaign in 1996 to protest the unacceptable working conditions, low wages, harassment and sex discrimination that are part of the job for California's 20,000 strawberry workers. According to Dolores Huerta, co-founder and secretary treasurer of the UFW, most of these workers make $8,000 a year and have no health insurance or other benefits.

Attending the march in New York, which traveled down Broadway past many stores that sell strawberries picked by the California workers, were Huerta, Gloria Steinem, Manhattan Borough President Virginia Fields and NOW Vice President Membership Karen Johnson. Also present was Sandra Rocha, a strawberry worker who spoke at NOW's Women of Color and Allies Summit in February. Marchers chanted "Si Se Puede," a UFW slogan that means Yes, it can be done.

The following day in San Francisco, NOW President Patricia Ireland marched alongside Huerta, UFW President Arturo Rodriguez, AFL-CIO Executive Vice President Linda Chavez-Thompson and others. Many San Francisco NOW chapter activists also participated in the action.

The focus of the nationwide marches was to bring attention to Driscoll Strawberry Associates, the largest berry corporation in the U.S. Workers for Driscoll face low pay, pesticide-treated fields andthreats or firing if they try to unionize. Driscoll has yet to endorse an agreement signed by Coastal Berry, California's largest grower, and approved by 6,000 stores around the country, saying that they will not interfere with workers rights to unionize.

Many producers have fought against worker's attempts to improve workplace conditions through unions. Ranches have fired workers, plowed under fields and even temporarily shut down operations rather than bargain for contracts.

But a major breakthrough on April 21 may signal a shift. Workers for Swanton Berry Farms, California's largest organic strawberry grower, signed a contract with the UFW at the city hall office of San Francisco Mayor Willie Brown. The contract gives the workers salaries of $7 to $11 an hour plus medical and dental benefits and a pension plan.

To demand that Driscoll Strawberry Associates allow their workers the same rights and respect, send e-mail from their website or call them at 408-761-5995.

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