Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Strawberry Fields Become A Fresh Union Battleground Hollywood Stars Join 25,000 in March for California Berry Pickers

Newspaper article The Christian Science Monitor

Strawberry Fields Become A Fresh Union Battleground Hollywood Stars Join 25,000 in March for California Berry Pickers

Article excerpt

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.

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. …

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