The Union Makes A Difference

people marching holding flags

courtesy UFW

collage of vegetables with people, farmers and farms

This article originally appeared in Southern Exposure Vol. 11 No. 6, "Our Food." Find more from that issue here.

The United Farm Workers of America (UFW) is on the move in Florida, trying to organize the state's 200,000 farmworkers. The union held its first organizing conference there on March 6, 1983, a gathering of 85 delegates from 17 farmworker committees from across the citrus belt.


Si Se Puede


They met in the American Legion Hall in Lake Wales, where colorful banners and homemade flags decorated the room and set the mood. “De Costa a Costa: California/Florida — Una Sola Union: One Union for Farm Workers.” Another showed the UFW’s black eagle spreading its wings over row upon row of bountiful green and orange citrus trees. “Hasta La Victoria.” “United We Will Win.” “El Comite de Winter Garden - En Florida Si Se Puede.” Yes, it can be done.

The Reverend Joseph Owens, a Jesuit priest and then-director of the Florida branch of the National Farm Worker Ministry, set a lofty tone: “We are not just meeting. We are not just planning. We are not just organizing. We are working out our whole salvation, not just for us, but for those who make us suffer. For our whole society.” Then he read a passage from Exodus. The children of Israel making bricks without straw. Relentless quotas. Confronting Pharoah. Arranging pressure. Marching to the Promised Land. The UFW regards Moses as the first labor organizer.

Ben Maddock came from California to address the group. He has been with the UFW since 1969 and is director of its citrus department. “Our purpose is to bring you together for the first time,” he said, and then turned to the highlights of the union’s history and its basic values: nonviolence, equality, democracy, justice.

Finally, Maddock got down to the business at hand: to hear wheat needs to be done. One by one, committee representatives from Lake Placid and Auburndale, Fort Pierce and Wachula, Frostproof and Sebring approached the microphone. All spoke of the need to organize, but Maddock urged them to be specific. He went around the circle four times, pressing for details.

The problems poured out. “We’re tired of picking for nothing.” Farmworkers want higher wages, of course. They also want the fringe benefits that industrial workers enjoy: medical coverage, vacations with pay, holidays, safety on the job, protection against pesticides, toilets in the fields. The list continues. Day care centers. Protection against harassment by the Border Patrol. Defeat of the proposed Simpson-Mazzoli immigration bill, which they fear would make it easier for growers to flood the labor pool with foreign workers, depressing wages even further. Education in their rights. Voter registration. A law to protect their organizing and bargaining rights.

What they’re up against is the state’s $4.3 billion agricultural industry, in which citrus is the central element. Florida produces 75 percent of the citrus grown in the U.S. and more than 80 percent of its frozen concentrated juice. Forbes Magazine's special 1982 issue on “The 400 Richest People in America” found five Florida citrus magnates nestled in with the Rockefellers and duPonts: James Emmet Evans ($135 million), Jesse J. Parrish, Jr. ($110 million), Jack M. Berry, Sr. ($120 million), Ben Hill Griffin, Jr. ($150 million), and the Lykes family ($1 billion).

The state has about 15,000 orange growers, but 40 processors dominate the industry, and their profits have attracted the interest of giant conglomerates. In 1982 alone, five major corporations purchased Florida citrus operations; newcomers are the Libby, McNeill & Libby division of Nestle; Campbell Soup Company; the Seven- Up subsidiary of Philip Morris, Inc.; Quaker Oats; and the Del Monte division of R.J. Reynolds. Earlier entrants to the Florida citrus scene are Procter & Gamble, Beatrice Foods, Royal Crown, Dart & Kraft, Lykes Brothers, and the Coca-Cola Company. The USDA reported in 1983 that “for the first time more than half the orange juice squeezed in Florida will be processed in conglomerate-owned plants.”

As the industry becomes more and more a creature of corporations, can the United Farm Workers Union really respond to those workers’ concerns? Does unionization make a difference? Ask the workers at Coca-Cola’s Minute Maid subsidiary, who voted 90 percent for UFW representation in a union authorization election on December 17, 1971. The company, nurturing its public image and also aware of how vulnerable it would be to an as-yet-unthreatened boycott, signed a UFW contract on February 29, 1972, and has renewed the agreement ever since. It’s the only UFW contract on the East Coast.

What they say is: “The union makes a big difference.” And they talk about four kinds of change they attribute to the union contract at Coke: in wages, fringe benefits, health and safety, and self-confidence.


A Decent Wage


“Farmworkers feed the whole world,” says Gus Thornton, “but we can’t get a decent rate for ourselves.” At 60, he has been in the fields for nearly 40 years, never with a union. A black war veteran and local commander of the American Legion, his Lake Wales Organizing Committee was host for the UFW’s spring conference. “If you don’t want to pick,” he adds, “they can always get somebody else.” Some workers don’t even make the $3.35-an-hour federal minimum wage.

On an average day, unorganized workers make S30 to $35 harvesting oranges, but consider $50 to $60 a good day, which they wish were standard. “The average fruit picker, he might have a good day today and maybe tomorrow,” explains Thornton. “And then he may have three or four bad days. That’s the way it works. If it was continuous, then you could see yourself getting somewhere.”

At Coca-Cola, the average citrus harvester will make $54 a day in the 1983-84 season. Coke worker Harry Marshall, of Frostproof, made $8,050 in oranges and grapefruit from November 29, 1982, to the short-season’s end on June 28. His earnings for the year will be around $10,000. Marshall used to “go up the road” in the offseason - vegetables in Ohio and Michigan, cherries and apples in upstate New York. Higher union wages and the 1974 federal unemployment insurance law have stabilized his life. If he earns at least $250 a week for 20 weeks, he qualifies for the maximum unemployment insurance payment of $125 a week, enough to sustain him until the season starts up again.

Systematic statistics on farmworker earnings are hard to come by. No government agency keeps separate track of Florida citrus earnings. The industry itself claims that it paid an average of 71 cents a box for oranges in 1981-82, which declined to 70 cents the following season. (The typical harvester can pick approximately eight boxes an hour.) Coca-Cola piece-rate workers averaged $7.49 an hour harvesting oranges and $7.59 for grapefruit in 1982-83. In the eight-month season from December to July, they were able to work for an average of 127 days — hard work, up and down the ladder, lugging a 90-pound picking sack of oranges. They face unpaid rainy days, mid-season layoffs when the fruit is not ripe, and daily production limits from the processing plant. Consequently, their annual earnings are affected.

An analysis of 408 UFW payroll records (45 percent of the harvesting force) for 1980-81 shows that the median Coca-Cola citrus harvester earned $6,074 in 29 weeks of available work. One-third made more than $7,000. Fourteen workers (3.4 percent) earned more than $10,000 during the season, including the highest earner, who made $12,114. Subsequent raises should bring median earnings to $7,025 in the 1983-84 season. In contrast to unorganized workers, who have little input on the “takeit- or-leave-it” wages, UFW workers negotiate their pay. Year-round, grove support workers won time-and-a-half after 40 hours. Seasonal harvesters have established an equitable system of setting rates. The company agreed to a “guaranteed box price average” in annual July wage negotiations - 90 cents a box for 1983-84.

Unionization has brought a sense of stability to the Coca-Cola labor force. Most see themselves as career farmworkers. They are not migrants. The company in past years has employed as many as 5,000 different workers in its 900 harvester and 250 grove-support jobs in the course of a season. In 1980-81, only 2,360 people held those 1,150 jobs. And there was high turnover in only 270 of the harvester positions (taken by 1,500 different workers, 600 of whom worked at Coke for fewer than 20 days). The remaining 630 harvesters (70 percent) worked regularly throughout the season — a steady job for them.

In addition to negotiated rates, the UFW won an unparalleled exploitation adjustment in a 1972 arbitration. Workers are paid in units of tubs, which purportedly hold 10 90-pound boxes of oranges. The union contended that they actually hold more. The arbitrator agreed. Since then, Coke workers have been paid for an extra quarter-box for each “10-box tub” they fill. It means another $170 a year for the average worker.

Before the union, Coca-Cola often required Saturday and Sunday work — seven days. Harvesters now have a fiveday week. Child labor is also eliminated, but it is still not unusual in non-unionized groves: family groups, with parents dropping fruit from the trees and children picking it up off the ground. Imagine auto workers taking their children to the Ford plant because they can’t earn enough themselves. “The union got us enough wages for a man to make a good pay, where he can afford to school his child, just like he should,” says Johnnie Lee Woodard of Avon Park.


Fringe Benefits


“I’ve never been in an organization that gave me and my family as many benefits as we get now in my whole born life,” says the Reverend Hugh Salary, a 63-year-old harvester and preacher, who has worked 11 seasons for Coke.

UFW workers now receive the benefits people in other industries take for granted. Coca-Cola contributes 47 cents an hour to the union’s Robert F. Kennedy Medical Plan, which also includes $6,000 in life insurance. Workers get paid vacations of one to four weeks, depending on length of service, nine paid holidays, plus 10 days of paid sick leave a year, along with jury-duty pay and paid funeral leave. The company pays five cents an hour into the UFW’s Martin Luther King, Jr., Farm Workers Fund for the development of service centers (agencies to help workers address community problems), and 20 cents an hour into the UFW’s retirement fund, unprecedented in American agriculture.

“I never thought I’d have a pension plan,” says Elisha Woodson, who recently retired and will draw $50 a month, the modest minimum payment, to supplement his Social Security. “Last year when I got my vacation pay, I hardly knew what to say,” adds Lloyd Salary, a $4.80-an-hour equipment operator. “It was more than $500. 1 ain’t never had that kind of money once in my hand.” “Who around here — any fruit picker for other companies — gets those kind of benefits?” asks Julio Vasquez.


Control of Pesticides


Non-unionized workers describe their problems with dangerous chemicals. “Sometimes you’re in the tree picking, and they’ll come along in the next grove beside you,” says Gus Thornton. Especially sulfur, used for rust mites. “When you pick that fruit with that sulfur, you cry all night. It gets in your eyes. They say, ‘Wash it out with an orange or a grapefruit.’ Hah! I think every fruit picker has bad eyes because of that spray. It really gets to you.”

Such abuses are not tolerated by Coca-Cola’s UFW workers. In the case of sulfur, the contract provides for a five-day waiting period before people can be sent into the groves, unless there has been a one-inch rainfall or 12 hours of irrigation. Particularly hazardous pesticides are specifically banned. (Most are also prohibited by federal law, but an anti-regulatory administration might restore them to general use; not at a unionized company.) Safety garments are also provided. Drinking water and field toilets are mandated.

The use of the pesticide Temik has recently been an issue in Florida. After the discovery that the water table is contaminated, public outcry was so strong that the state Secretary of Agriculture issued a temporary ban in 1983. Temik was outlawed at Coca- Cola in 1981.


Security and Dignity


“Before I joined the union, I was very shy,” says Julio Vasquez, now Avon Park area representative on the Coca-Cola Ranch Committee. Exhibiting an aroused sense of self-assurance, he goes on: “I didn’t defend myself. I didn’t stand up for my rights. I worked like a slave. The foreman, he’d say, ‘You either pick or go home.’ I’d say to myself, ‘Well, I don’t have nothing to do at home, so I’ll pick.’ It was like a slave. By being in the union, I’ve changed. I don’t think that way any more.”

The union gives farmworkers an awareness of their dignity and the power they have in unity. It also gives them training and opportunity for personal growth. Through its participatory “ranch committee” structure (a term borrowed from California, where agricultural operations are called “ranches”), the workers take charge of their own affairs as crew stewards, negotiators, and elected representatives. “That’s what I like about this union,” says Elisha Woodson. “It just picked them up right out of the crew and put them in office.”

Their sense of unity gives them psychological self-confidence. “They know they’ve got somebody to stand with them,” explains Woodson. They demonstrate, confront the company when necessary, and even lobby at the state capital, buttonholing legislators on political issues. “If there hadn’t been a union,” says Harry Marshall, “you couldn’t have found people to go up to Tallahassee and different places like that, because they would have been afraid that they would be fired.”

“In the past when there was no union, there was a lot of favoritism and discrimination,” continues Marshall. “To give you an example, there are different qualities of work in the same grove at the same price. Some are better than others. Relatives of foremen would get the best part, or their friends. The rest would either do what the crewleader said, or the next day they wouldn’t even catch the bus. Now by having a contract, something like that won’t go on.”

Coke workers are now protected with a union hiring hall. The company gives notice of a need for 30 or 40 workers; the union recruits them. Hirings, recalls, layoffs, and promotions are done by seniority. There is assurance of job security, safeguards against arbitrary company action, and protection in basic matters of health and safety.

Lloyd Salary senses the apprehension in unorganized workers and recognizes the strength unionization offers: “They tell me, ‘We can’t go up and fight the white folks because those white folks last longer.’ So I tell them it ain’t the matter how long they last. If you get a union, they have to recognize you. If you take one little string and add another to it, every time it gets harder and harder to break. If you get together, that’s it.”

Corine Dorsey of Avon Park, one of the union’s leaders, explains how rallies can help build this spirit: “People like that. We marched. We had cars, flags, and everything. That’s what made them strong.” In 1982, at age 65, she made a six-city tour sponsored by the National Farm Worker Ministry, telling the union story in places as far away as Toronto and Washington.

What has the union meant to Coca-Cola’s workers? “Protection,” sums up Hugh Salary. “Before I joined the union,” adds his brother Lloyd, “I always did want me a house. But I didn’t see no way in the world I could get it. Now I’ve got one.” “Just to be treated like a person,” adds Johnnie Lee Woodard. “The union was the start of that, sure was.”

Organizing the union in Florida will be long and slow. Cesar Chavez has a favorite saying: “The growers have money. We have time. Time is our money.” This hope sustains unorganized workers like Ben Snowdon of Lake Wales as he contemplates the future:

“I have five grandsons that I’m thinking about. I would like for them to plan for themselves when they get old enough. I hope they won’t have to make a living picking fruit like their grandfather. But I hope by that time it’ll be union all over. By that time, it’ll be better for them than it was for me.”