UFW & Driscoll’s: United To Exploit

Why won’t the United Farm Workers support the Driscoll’s Boycott?

[ Comprehensive Immigration Reform rally in Oxnard, California on May 1, 2013, International Workers Day. Children and adults wave red and black UFW flags while holding a Reiter Affiliated Companies banner next to a company representative holding a UFW flag. ]

Why won’t the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) support the Driscoll’s Boycott? That’s one of the questions UFW Vice President Lauro Barajas would not answer after he spoke at Hillary Clinton’s rally in Salinas on May 25.

There are two other questions that Barajas was unwilling to answer. He was asked why he personally took down UFW flags while people were speaking on stage and asking for support of the Driscoll’s Boycott at the Cesar Chavez March last month in Salinas. Barajas also refused to reveal anything about the UFW’s intimate relationship with Reiter Affiliated Companies, an Oxnard-based subsidiary of Driscoll’s which grows berries in the United States, Mexico, Europe and Northern Africa.

Lauro Barajas, Vice President of the United Farm Workers, was asked why the UFW will not support the Driscoll's Boycott. Barajas refused to answer. Salinas, California. May 25, 2016.
Lauro Barajas, Vice President of the United Farm Workers, was asked why the UFW will not support the Driscoll’s Boycott. Barajas refused to answer. Salinas, California. May 25, 2016.

Street Interview with UFW VP Lauro Barajas

Lauro Barajas is Vice President of the United Farm Workers. While reporting for Indybay, I caught up with Barajas on West Alisal Street on May 25, 2016 following his speech before Hillary Clinton at Hartnell College in Salinas, California. I asked Barajas a few questions about the UFW’s intimate relationship with Driscoll’s — the world’s largest berry distributor. Barajas refused to answer any questions.

[ Lauro Barajas, Vice President of the United Farm Workers]

Indybay: Disculpa (Excuse me), Lauro, what is the UFW’s position on the Driscoll’s Boycott?

Barajas: Take [Turn] your thing off.

Indybay: What’s your position? Hey, how come you guys don’t support the boycott of Driscoll’s?

Barajas: What?

Indybay: How come you took the flag down of the UFW when Boycott Driscoll’s people were speaking?

Barajas: [Reaches for handle of car door.]

Indybay: Lauro, can you answer the question please?

Barajas: No, no I won’t.

Indybay: Lauro, what’s your relationship with the Reiter Company?

Barajas: You can think whatever you want.

Indybay: Well tell me, tell me the truth.

Barajas: The truth. What do you want?

Indybay: I want to know why you won’t support the Driscoll’s Boycott.

Barajas: Have a good day.

Indybay: You won’t tell us?

Barajas: [Closes car door].

Why won’t the UFW support the Driscoll’s Boycott?

The UFW’s clear lack of support for the farmworkers in San Quintín, México and Washington state who are leading an international boycott against Driscoll’s was dramatically demonstrated on April 3, 2016 at the annual Cesar Chavez March in Salinas, California.

Prior to parading through the streets of Salinas, Michael Garcia of the Watsonville Brown Berets enthusiastically approached UFW Vice President Lauro Barajas and asked if it was OK if members of Families United for Justice (FUJ), which is a local independent union of farmworkers in Washington, and the Watsonville Brown Berets carried a “Boycott Driscoll’s” banner towards the front of the march. Garcia was denied and told that the UFW did not want the banner carried at all during the march. When FUJ boycott coordinator Andrew Eckels approached a UFW representative to ask permission to speak from the stage about the FUJ, Eckels was given the cold shoulder and completely ignored.

A rally in the park continued after the Cesar Chavez March, and despite previous instructions from the UFW, the stage owner granted advocates of the Driscoll’s Boycott a few minutes to address the crowd. FUJ member Lázaro Matamoros primarily spoke followed by closing words from Eckels. This came after all the other organizational representatives had already spoken, and following a performance by the mariachi band. Still, UFW wanted nothing to do with farmworkers fighting for dignity and justice against Driscoll’s. Garcia recalls, “As soon as we started talking, the main UFW representative [Lauro Barajas] started pulling out UFW flags from around the stage.”

Although it is now obvious that the UFW is working against the farmworkers in San Quintín, Mexico and Washington state who are leading the international Driscoll’s Boycott, the UFW continually refuse to answer any questions regarding their support for, and close relationship with, Driscoll’s.

UFW Teams Up With Costco, Whole Foods, and Andrew & Williamson

“Our hats are off to you Whole Foods and Costco …”
— Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers

U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (left) met with Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll, Congresswoman Julia Brownley who represents California’s 26th district, including Oxnard and most of Ventura County, and Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers. April 8, 2016. Andrew & Williamson’s Crisalida Berry Farm in Oxnard, California. Screenshot.
U.S. Secretary of Labor Thomas Perez (left) met with Equitable Food Initiative (EFI) Executive Director Peter O’Driscoll, Congresswoman Julia Brownley who represents California’s 26th district, including Oxnard and most of Ventura County, and Arturo Rodriguez, President of United Farm Workers. April 8, 2016. Andrew & Williamson’s Crisalida Berry Farm in Oxnard, California. Screenshot.

The UFW continues to be a thorn in the side of many, but certainly not all, agricultural businesses, and has filed numerous Notices of Intent to Take Access with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB). When the UFW, or possibly another labor organization, files a valid Notice of Intent to Take Access with the ALRB, they are permitted to enter property where farmworkers engage in agricultural work. During these visits, a limited number of union representatives can speak with farmworkers and distribute flyers.

While the UFW maintains adversarial relations with some large agribusinesses, it has partnered up with others, including San Diego-based grower-shipper Andrew & Williamson (A&W). Through the Equitable Food Initiative (EFI), UFW is partnering with not only A&W, but also warehouse retailer Costco, the largest seller of organic produce, as well as Whole Foods Market.

In an analysis of the EFI, the Domestic Fair Trade Association (DFTA) documents EFI’s claim’s in EFI’s own language: “The Equitable Food Initiative certification program develops standards, training processes and a certification to protect farm workers and produce safer, healthier food … benefiting workers, growers, retailers, and consumers alike.”

The DFTA states that, “EFI’s significant deficiencies and concerns are mainly ones of omission rather than commission; specifically, the absence of support for small scale farms and long-term, direct and fair trading relationships.”

The EFI and it’s partnership with the UFW is also being contested by the union’s traditional foes, such as the grape and tree fruit growers in California’s central valley who make up the newly renamed California Fresh Fruit Association (CFFA). In an opinion piece published at The Packer, “the fresh fruit and vegetable industry’s leading source for news, information and analysis since 1893,” Barry Bedwell writes on behalf on the CFFA:

To claim that EFI promotes “best practices” is more troubling. But when coupled with the EFI’s “partnership” with the UFW, it would seem downright disingenuous to suggest that organized labor in this case places worker dignity ahead of its own bureaucratic prerogatives and institutional survival. By partnering with an organization like the UFW … EFI calls into question its own integrity regarding workers’ rights.

John Mackey, the CEO and co-founder of Whole Foods Market, is known for his strong anti-union views, and as a supporter of free market economics who co-authored Conscious Capitalism, which Christine Bader called an “over-the-top adulation of the private sector” in her review of the 2013 book.

One of Mackey’s most infamous statements was comparing unions to “herpes.”

“The union is like having herpes. It doesn’t kill you, but it’s unpleasant and inconvenient, and it stops a lot of people from becoming your lover.”

Whole Foods was criticized in the late 1990s for its refusal to support a campaign by the UFW on behalf of agricultural workers laboring on strawberry farms.

In a May 1998 article titled “Whole Foods Plays Dirty,” Paul Ortiz writes, “For the past several months, Whole Foods stores have been distributing a slickly-produced brochure to inquiring customers in response to the Strawberry Workers’ Campaign. The brochure is full of misinformation and half-truths that give one the impression that being a farm worker in America is Heaven on earth.”

Eighteen years later, Whole Foods is still a leader at distributing slickly-produced brochures to inquiring customers and Driscoll’s boycotters, however this time around John Mackey and Whole Foods have the full backing and partnership of the United Farm Workers.

Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx. May 28, 2016. A manager at the new Whole Foods Market in Bellingham, WA gave supporters of Families United for Justice and the international Driscoll's Boycott a booklet with information on "The Whole Trade Difference" when they were holding signs and distributing flyers in front of the store. Original photo caption by Xolotl Edgar Franx: More "fair trade" labels, no justice for farm workers.
Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx. May 28, 2016. A manager at the new Whole Foods Market in Bellingham, WA gave supporters of Families United for Justice and the international Driscoll’s Boycott a booklet with information on “The Whole Trade Difference” when they were holding signs and distributing flyers in front of the store. Original photo caption by Xolotl Edgar Franx: More “fair trade” labels, no justice for farm workers.

Swanton Berry Farm Seeks Out the UFW

The UFW’s antagonist relationship with many growers is contrasted by the union’s relationship since 1998 with Swanton Berry Farm, located on California’s central coast just north of Santa Cruz. In this case, the owners of the farm reached out to the UFW and asked the union to unionize the workers who harvest their berries.

Swanton Berry Farm states, “Many people assume that unions are appropriate only where working conditions are so bad that workers need protection from their employer. While this is obviously true in many cases, our approach from the beginning has been a non-adversarial outlook toward unions.”

In the 2015 book “Organic Struggle: The Movement for Sustainable Agriculture in the United States,” Brian K. Obach explains:

Highly exploitative subcontracted seasonal employment arrangements characterize most conventional farm labor. But even many small and midsize organic farms run by ideologically committed individuals rely on low-wage workers or young low- or no-pay ‘interns’ who carry out farm labor in exchange for room and board along with the learning experience.

Unionization is rare across the entire farm labor sector given the lack of protections afforded under federal law and the challenges of organizing an often-transient population. Workers on one organic farm, Swanton Berry Farm in Davenport, California, are organized under the UFW, but this is exceptional. The farm’s owner, Jim Cochran, essentially invited the workers to unionize. He saw the shortcomings of organic standards when it came to issues of social justice, and bemoaned the lack of consciousness about the issue among organic consumers. “Everybody cares about how the bugs are treated, but nobody cares about how the workers are treated,” Cochran told one reporter.

When Did the UFW Become Friends with Driscoll’s?

Historically, the UFW has had a combative relationship with Driscoll’s. In “The Costco Connection: Farmworkers bring Driscoll’s Boycott to Respected Washington Grocer,” Tomás Madrigal notes that the UFW attempted farmworker organization drives at Driscoll’s subcontracted growers in Watsonville and Salinas in 1996-98 and in Saticoy and Oxnard in 2012.

The UFW will not reveal when their friendship with Driscoll’s began, however a photograph from May 1, 2013 shows the union’s intimate relationship with Reiter Affiliated Companies, an Oxnard-based subsidiary of Driscoll’s which grows berries in the United States, Mexico, Europe and Northern Africa. In the photo taken at the Comprehensive Immigration Reform rally in Oxnard on International Workers Day, children and adults are waving red and black UFW flags and holding a Reiter Affiliated Companies banner next to a company representative holding a UFW flag.

Comprehensive Immigration Reform rally in Oxnard, California on May 1, 2013, International Workers Day. Children and adults wave red and black UFW flags while holding a Reiter Affiliated Companies banner next to a company representative holding a UFW flag.
Comprehensive Immigration Reform rally in Oxnard, California on May 1, 2013, International Workers Day. Children and adults wave red and black UFW flags while holding a Reiter Affiliated Companies banner next to a company representative holding a UFW flag.

It’s difficult to distinguish any significant separation between Reiter Affiliated Companies and Driscoll’s. The berries grown for Reiter Affiliated Companies, including BerryMex and BerryCentro, are distributed by Driscoll’s.

The California Department of Food and Agriculture explains that, “The California State Board of Food and Agriculture is a fifteen-member state board, appointed by the Governor, and carefully selected to represent a broad range of agricultural commodities, a variety of geographic regions and both the University of California and California State University academic systems.”

Miles Reiter of Aptos is a member of this significant board whose term expires in January 2017. Reiter’s biography for the State Board of Food and Agriculture says that he is the Chairman of Driscoll’s, his family has specialized in berries for over one hundred years, and that Miles and his brother Garland continue to farm through their family business, Reiter Affiliated Companies.

Miles Reiter’s biography for the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.
Miles Reiter’s biography for the California State Board of Food and Agriculture.

On April 5, 2016, the United Farm Workers published a long comment on bradleyallen.net in response to the article, “UFW Tries to Silence Boycott Driscoll’s Activists at Cesar Chavez March.” In the comment they write, “UFW organizers have been aiding the workers in San Quintin; we know some of their leaders because they were UFW activists when they worked in the United States.” The UFW continues, “But that’s not the point …”

A commenter named Galser follows up and asks the UFW:

Why was UFW so against these protesters and boycotters from sharing a very important message? Why not endorse it? Why not speak to the issue in the way you are working on it?

The UFW is once again invited to make their point and speak to the issue in the way they are working on it, as well as answer the question:

Why won’t the UFW support the Driscoll’s Boycott?

The National Headquarters of the United Farm Workers in Keene, California was contacted for this story, but declined to comment.


For more information, please see: The San Quintín Rebellion


Previous coverage of the boycott Driscoll’s movement:

Author: Bradley Allen

Bradley Allen is a reporter and photographer in the Monterey Bay Area, and a collective member of the San Francisco Bay Area Independent Media Center (Indybay). Follow him on social media: @BradleySA.