Pacific News Service



Murder Sparks Anger-- Laborers' Union Takes Off In Former UFW Stronghold


By David Bacon

Date: 09-29-99


San Joaquin Valley lettuce workers once formed the sturdy spine of the United Farm Workers union, but changes in agricultural practice -- drawing workers from the fields into enormous packing operations – have sapped the UFW's strength. However the Laborers' union has stepped into the picture, and the region may see a struggle as dramatic as those of the 1960s. PNS associate editor David Bacon writes widely on immigrant and labor issues.


AVENAL, CA -- In their heyday, lettuce cutters were the backbone of the United Farm Workers in towns like this one up and down the San Joaquin Valley. They cut and packed at breakneck speed in three-man crews and often staged work stoppages to boost their piece rate. Their strong organization and readiness to strike built the union.


In the 1980s, growers brought in machines, and the union lost strength. But here in Avenal, labor strife never settled comfortably into the past and this year the town promises to become the site of conflict as bitter as that of three decades ago.


Dolores Llamas came here from Guadalajara in 1979. This spring, she and her friends began organizing a union at the packing plant of the area's largest employer, Paramount Farms. The region is now less dependent on lettuce, partly because pistachio and almond orchards have sprung up. Paramount is the largest grower of the nuts and its packing facility employs a thousand workers around the clock.


Paramount is owned by Los Angeles-based Roll International, one of a new group of corporate growers -- the company's operations extend from citrus groves in Visalia to the Franklin Mint in Pennsylvania.


"I was afraid when my friend Luisa Lara came and started talking to me about the union," Llamas says. "I knew they could fire me whenever they wanted." The company's policy manual states that Paramount "may terminate an employee's job at any time and without cause, for any reason or no reason."


Lara came to Avenal from Honduras 15 years ago. She worked on the hulling machines at Paramount for 12 years before she was fired March 29. Losing a job with Paramount is a big blow here. The only alternative is working in the fields, labor Llamas had grown up with and already knew too well.


But even fear can be overcome by economic reality. Llamas makes $6 an hour, and her husband, who works in the same plant, makes $6.75, giving the family about $450 a week to live on. But rent on their double-wide trailer is $528, food for five kids runs $175 a week, and other bills absorb another $450 every month. "I didn't even have money to buy the kids new clothes when school started this fall," she says.


Workers were also angered by the murder of Obdulia Diaz this spring. She was fired in mid-shift over a fight with another worker. She asked to use the office phone to call home, or to wait until her friends got off work, so she could get a ride home. She was turned down, and so began the long trudge toward Avenal.


Her body was found in a nearby almond grove. "We never saw her alive again," says Gonzales, "and as if that wasn't bad enough, we were then told that we couldn't talk about what happened to her at work."


The Paramount drive not only involves the largest shed on the west side of the valley, but it may give the union involved – the Laborer's Union -- a big base for organizing similar sheds. Building the union are two veteran organizers, Humberto Gomez, who grew up in the UFW, and Yanira Merino, a Salvadoran refugee who's now one of the Laborers' most adept strategists.


Demographic change in California is affecting this union, historically largely black and Latino. Today the union is growing even more Mexican at its base. The heads of many locals are Spanish-speaking, and they are targeting industries where immigrant Latino workers predominate, outside the union's traditional base in construction.


Local 550 was chartered 4 years ago as a union for valley packing sheds and food processing plants.


In the past, the Laborers were widely seen as a union uninterested in militant fights -- but that is clearly the kind of fight Paramount has in mind. The prospect fills Llamas with both worry and bravado. "They have meetings with us every day," she says. "They show us videos which say the union will go on strike, burn our cars and hurt our families. We've already seen some of us get fired."


The company, which did not respond to repeated requests for interviews, has hired anti-union consultants. According to Gomez, the local farm bureau has also sent a representative to campaign for the company. Meanwhile two union activists have been fired, accused of bothering non-union workers.


A vote on union representation is set for October 10.


Yanira Merino says that immigrant workers like Llamas and Lara who risk organizing in the face of such opposition expect they will win not only a voice at work, but one in the union itself. "That's the challenge the labor movement has to meet here," she declares.


"I worked in a shrimp-processing plant when I first came here," Merino explains. "I've felt the terror employers use when their workers start organizing. Coming from El Salvador, I never thought I'd see that in a first-world country like this. But even though you put your life on the line to organize a union back home, you have to fight for your rights in either place."

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