December 2013 / January 2014
Newsletter Volume 58, Number 5

We’re fighting for food chain workers — on the job and in the community

Photo of Teamsters holding a banner that reads "Thanks to Marquez workers for AB 263!"

California’s Central Valley produces nearly one quarter of the food Americans eat. More fruits, vegetables, and dairy products come from California than anywhere else in the U.S. Yet workers in the food chain struggle to feed their own families, often working long hours for low wages and little benefits.

California food production also hurts workers and their communities in other ways. Runoff from farms and dairies has polluted the well water that people drink, and recent studies show that families are paying 2-4% of their income for bottled drinking water. The overwhelmingly Latino workforce have little political representation at city councils, county boards, the state legislature, or congress. In short, if you work in the food chain you have no voice at work or in local government.

But the Teamsters are fighting to change that. With more than 30,000 members in California food processing and dairies, we are organizing to build power at the work place and in the community.

Since the last newsletter, Teamsters have experienced ups and downs in our organizing efforts. In August, we kicked off a campaign to organize nearly 900 workers at Taylor Farms in Tracy. Taylor Farms workers bag vegetables that are shipped to our union grocery stores, such as Costco, Raley’s and Safeway. They also supply fast food restaurants like McDonald’s and KFC. Most importantly, Teamsters Local 890 represents roughly 2,500 Taylor Farms employees in Salinas. They make, on average, about $3 more per hour than the Tracy workers who do the same work for the same employer. And they have respect.

The Tracy workers are hungry for change and have jumped into our organizing drive. Taylor Farms’ response has been to bring in union-busting consultants. Rumors are flying around the plant that workers will be retaliated against for their immigration status. Union activists have been suspended and terminated. This is the climate of fear that has killed so many organizing drives in the past, but so far, the workers are holding strong.

The good news is, the sort of retaliatory activities Taylor Farms appears to be engaged in will be illegal come January 1 under legislation we took a lead role in getting passed and that Governor Jerry Brown signed into law. Three bills – AB 263, AB 524, and SB 666 – are the strongest labor laws in any state protecting immigrant workers from retaliation. Under these laws, immigrant workers who speak up will now have new legal protections. That's because these laws put civil and criminal penalties in place for employers who threaten workers with immigration enforcement.

Along with Enterprise Zone reform—a battle that many said could never be won—Joint Council 7 won on every significant piece of legislation we worked on this year. The lobby days and work that many Locals did with their legislators on the ground made a huge difference, along with the high visibility of the Teamsters in the Prop. 32 fight last year and the DRIVE contributions we make. This is a real testament to all of our JC7 Locals and members who have stepped up in politics. When we do it, we can win big.

Finally, we owe a debt to the more than 20 workers at Marquez Brothers who were fired since they organized with Local 517 last fall, along with over 100 members of Local 853 who watched VWR and Blue Linx move their jobs to the Central Valley with help of the Enterprise Zone program. Their sacrifices were not in vain. Through trips to Sacramento, telling their stories to the press, and other actions, they became the poster children of why these legal reforms were so desperately needed.

Unfortunately, in a frustrating blow, the Marquez Brothers workers lost their second election by a slim vote of 85-83. This campaign demonstrates perfectly the complete ineffectiveness of federal labor law to protect the rights of workers. Despite all of the fired union activists and rulings against Marquez Brothers for similar behavior in Southern California, we lost just about every case at the National Labor Relations Board. And to cap it off, the Republican-led government shutdown delayed the election for weeks, giving the company total leeway to hold daily meetings with workers to discourage them from joining the union.

While we can go back for another election in one year, we continue to go after Marquez Brothers. And workers from the plant in Hanford are joining the campaign, along with Taylor Farms and thousands of Teamsters in the Valley, to raise standards up and down the food chain.