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Turning a New Leaf for Worker Justice

Low-Wage Movement Strikes Fast Food Processing at Taylor Farms

by BRIAN TIERNEY

It was still dark as Julian Camacho flagged down workers driving in for their shift. One by one, he handed them a leaflet while dozens of picketers crisscrossed the parking lot entrance, chanting in the morning chill before the sun rose over Tracy, California.

Julian knows these people. He used to work alongside them – cutting, washing, packaging, and loading salads and other food for Taylor Farms, the largest supplier of fresh-cut produce in the country.

But when Julian became involved in a campaign to organize a union at his plant, the company fired him.

“I was fired after four years of working at Taylor Farms,” he said. “We have the right to stand up and organize for better working conditions, but Taylor Farms clearly does not respect that and it doesn’t respect its workers – they just want to silence us.”

Julian isn’t alone. He joined hundreds of other workers and supporters for a one-day strike against unfair labor practices on December 19. Like Julian, two other workers have been terminated for their union support. Among the workers at the company’s two plants in Tracy, a large majority have signed union cards. They say they deserve more than poverty wages and the mistreatment that management inflicts on its workforce.

Much like the fast-food and retail employees whose protests for living wages have spread across the country, Julian and Taylor Farms workers are part of a national wave of unrest against low wages in the food industry. The only thing that sets Taylor Farms workers apart from striking McDonald’s and Walmart workers is their position in the industry’s supply chain. They supply food to McDonald’s, Walmart and other major fast-food establishments, retailers, chain restaurants and grocers. These workers are unseen to consumers and all the more vulnerable to the heavy hand of abusive employers.

What makes Taylor Farms workers even more vulnerable is their position as immigrants, both documented and undocumented. The company has been keen on using that against its workers ever since they started organizing with Teamsters Local 601. Workers in Tracy report being threatened with deportation, E-Verify and other forms of immigration enforcement in retaliation for their union support.

UNFAIR LABOR PRACTICES AND OTHER INDIGNITIES

On the picket line, workers and supporters brandished signs and banners that read “We Will Not Be Silenced” and “Stop the War on Immigrant Workers.” Julian was later joined by Brandon, a young man who has been working at Taylor Farms for ten years. He started working on the plant’s onion line when he was 9 years old. Brandon wants to go to school, but the company changes his schedule every time he tries to schedule classes.

Taylor Farms workers want more than a living wage. They want respect and dignity in the workplace. Instead, they endure unsafe working conditions and the company’s routine termination of workers who are injured on the job.

The company denies basic accommodations to pregnant workers, forcing one woman to resign and lose six months of wages while she scraped by on food stamps. Another worker is reduced to living out of his car so that he can afford out-of-pocket costs for his daughter’s health care. Still others are denied protective gear, causing gagging and other health problems for workers exposed to chemical fumes. The company often denies workers their meal breaks and pressures them against using the restroom during their shift.

So on a windy Thursday before Christmas, Teamster members in the region joined Taylor Farms workers and community allies in an Unfair Labor Practice (ULP) strike against the company. Pickets assembled at 4 am while a team of mobile picketers hit Teamster-represented workplaces supplied by Taylor Farms, including Raley’s and C & S Wholesale Grocers. Several trucks making deliveries to the plants in Tracy respected the picket line, turning their 18-wheel rigs around and leaving goods undelivered.

The union has filed charges for hundreds of ULP violations committed by the company at both plants in Tracy. With decades of experience in union drives across many industries, organizers on the campaign say the sheer volume of ULP violations committed by Taylor Farms is overwhelming and perhaps even unprecedented.

A VICIOUS ANTI-UNION CAMPAIGN

The Teamster organizing campaign at Taylor Farms began in September. And despite the fact that over 2,500 workers at Taylor Farms’ plant in Salinas are represented by Teamsters and have a union contract, the company immediately responded to organizing efforts in Tracy with a fierce anti-union drive.

The company’s campaign against the union is backed by high-priced attorneys who specialize in “union avoidance.” One firm the company has used is Industrial Relations Consultants, Inc., which boasts its ability to help “manage Hispanic and other ethnic workers and assist our clients in remaining or becoming non-union.”

Further complicating the workers’ organizing campaign is the fact that many of the workers at the plants in Tracy are not direct Taylor Farms employees. The company relies on two “temp agencies” – Abel Mendoza and Sling Shot – to staff a large portion of its operations. One of the agencies is located right outside of the Taylor Farms plant on MacArthur Drive, giving the company easy access to flexible labor and protecting it from any legal consequences associated with employing undocumented workers.

The company’s war on its immigrant workforce has included mandatory anti-union meetings, posting anti-union propaganda in break rooms and forcing workers to wear shirts that say “I Love Taylor Farms.” But threatening workers based on their immigration status has been the company’s primary weapon against the union drive at Taylor Farms.

IMMIGRANT RIGHTS – IT’S THE LAW

Taylor Farms’ repeated violations of immigrant workers’ rights is technically illegal. But a trio of new laws passed in California will soon add tougher sanctions against employers who break the law by abusing their immigrant workforce.

“This community and the state of California will not accept the abusive and illegal practices that Taylor Farms is alleged to have committed against its workers,” said California Assemblymember Roger Hernandez who spoke at a rally in front of Taylor Farms on the day of the strike. Hernandez led the California legislature in passing AB 263, a new immigrant anti-retaliation law signed by Gov. Jerry Brown along with AB 524 and SB 666.

The laws, which take effect on January 1, 2014, prohibit immigration-related retaliation and classify the threat to expose workers’ immigration status as extortion. Companies in violation of the new laws could face criminal penalties.

“The stories I’ve heard from workers like you compelled me to introduce legislation last year that prohibits employers from retaliating against workers such as yourselves for exercising protected rights,” Hernandez told workers at the rally. “I could not have moved that legislation forward without the heavy support and push of the Teamsters Union – that’s how we got it to the governor’s desk.”

“I strongly believe that Taylor Farms can afford to treat its workers with dignity and respect. This is not a mom-and-pop business. Last year Taylor Farms had an estimated revenue of $1.8 billion. They supply produce to some of the largest companies in the world, including Walmart and McDonald’s,” Hernandez said.

Hernandez added that he is deeply troubled by reports that the company has used immigration status as a threat to silence workers who are trying to organize. “We will no longer stand for such behavior,” he said.

One of the central demands of the recent ULP strike was that the company reinstate unjustly fired workers like Julian. Two other fired workers, Eddy Rodriguez and Julio Munguia, also spoke at the rally.

“Taylor Farms treats its workers in Tracy like dirt,” said Rodriguez. “I wanted a better life for me and my coworkers – and for that I was fired.”

BIG BUSINESS, BIG BULLY

Hernandez is right about the size of Taylor Farms’ business. The company has operations in ten states and in Mexico. It employs up to 7,000 workers who manufacture and distribute prepackaged salads and fresh-cut fruits and vegetables to major companies like McDonald’s, Subway, KFC, Pizza Hut, Taco Bell, Darden Restaurants and retailers like Walmart and Kroger.

Still, Taylor Farms CEO Bruce Taylor insists that his workers are his “family,” according to an article he wrote in the BerkleyHaas alumni magazine in 2012. The workers in Tracy don’t feel they’ve been treated that way. And the company’s overall track record certainly tells a different story.

Production workers in Tracy, such as those who work on the tomato line, work up to 17 hours a day and five days a week or more during the busy season. They typically make $8 an hour. Taylor Farms has accumulated over $80,000 in OSHA penalties in the last five years. It also faces an ongoing class-action case for requiring employees to work off-the-clock and without pay. In Tracy, workers are penalized by the company for taking time off due to illness. They are denied workers’ compensation when they are injured on the job. And workers also say that complaining about safety issues or not being paid for overtime often results in being fired.

One worker recently quit after 17 years with the company. The physically-demanding, repetitive work had taken a toll on her body and she was having major health problems. She repeatedly asked to be moved to a position that would involve different repetitive motion, but the company refused. So she was forced to quit. She received no workers’ compensation, no retirement benefits – nothing.

Workers in Tracy say the company has cracked down ruthlessly on union supporters. Managers and supervisors have taken to accusing pro-union workers of sabotage. Workers have been told they will lose their jobs if they join the union. They’ve also been told they are prohibited from talking about the union at work.

But the company isn’t satisfied with making its workers afraid of the union. It wants its workers to be actively hostile to the organizing drive. Recently workers were taken to a manager’s office and told to sign an anti-union petition. Workers inside one of the plants report being forced to join supervisors and managers for a counter-demonstration against the union during the strike. Supervisors held signs that said “Union Go Away.” But more offensive than that was hearing the plant manager lead a chant of “No se pudo” (You can’t) – a cynical and ugly twist on the popular slogan “Sí se puede” (Yes we can) made famous by Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers.

So why is Taylor Farms reacting so mercilessly to organizing efforts in Tracy? It could be because it knows what a Teamster-represented shop within the company looks like. Teamsters Local 890 represents some 2,500 workers at Taylor Farms in Salinas. The union contract there provides a grievance procedure, safeguards against favoritism, protective gear for worker safety, regular pay raises, fair treatment of injured workers, affordable health insurance, paid sick time, and paid holidays.

FEEDING THE FAMILIES THAT FEED THE NATION

Taylor Farms may also be worried about what a victory for its workers in Tracy might mean across the food processing industry in California’s Central Valley. It is a cruel irony that this region that produces a quarter of the food that Americans consume also experiences some of the highest levels of hunger and poverty in the country.

The Teamsters say the campaign at Taylor Farms is part of a larger coalition effort to organize and build political power for Latinos in the region. The food processing workers in the valley may yet open a new front in the national strike movement against the low-wage economy. Those strikes have been bubbling further up the supply chain at fast-food restaurants and Walmart stores. But they’ve also been simmering behind the scenes among warehouse workers, port truck drivers and low-wage government contractors.

Taylor Farms workers are calling attention to the fact that poverty wages and disrespect for workers’ rights isn’t merely a fast-food problem, or a Walmart problem. It’s a problem that afflicts workers up and down supply chains across multiple industries. It’s a national problem.

Back in Tracy, workers and organizers are discussing next steps for the campaign to win justice at Taylor Farms. On the day of the strike, a worker getting off of her shift walked out to the parking lot entrance where Julian and others were still picketing. She wore a Teamster t-shirt underneath her black snow pants overalls that workers wear to protect them from cold temperatures in the plant.

“Sí se puede,” she said to Julian as she walked by, thrusting her fist in the air.

Julian hopes the union will win his job back. But the organizing struggle at Taylor Farms is about something even more fundamental than his job. It’s about the basic right of human beings – no matter where they work and no matter where they come from – to be treated with dignity and respect.

More than any job, that’s what Julian and his coworkers are fighting for at Taylor Farms.

Brian Tierney is an independent labor journalist in Washington, DC. Read more of his work at Subterranean Dispatches.