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After a four-year battle, more than 750 Ventura County, California, strawberry pickers have a union contract with Coastal Berry, the nation's largest strawberry company.

The three-year contract signed March 8 gives the United Farm Workers its first major agreement in the state's $600 million strawberry industry.

"This breakthrough agreement makes Coastal Berry's Ventura County employees the best-paid and best-protected workers in the fastest-growing strawberry producing region in the state," said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez.

The strawberry organizing drive started in 1997 and gained wide support from the labor movement and other groups. But to avoid unionization, the companies plowed under crops, fired pickers and selectively shut down operations when workers voted in favor of UFW representation.

Under the new Coastal Berry contract, workers will receive a 7 percent to 15 percent pay increase over three years. Pickers working a minimum of 60 hours a month will receive company-paid health insurance that includes medical, dental and prescriptions. Non-union strawberry pickers in the region have either no health coverage or must labor for 500 hours to be eligible. The contract also establishes a grievance and arbitration procedure, providing California's strawberry workers their first meaningful  job security and safeguards against discrimination and favoritism.

Coastal Berry employs workers in Northern California fields who are covered by a contract with an unaffiliated "worker committee." Wages are better in Northern California than in Ventura County, but the new UFW contract provides better benefits and job security.

Rodriguez said the UFW's efforts will next focus on organizing more strawberry workers in Southern California.

The UFW's only previous victory in the strawberry industry came three years ago, when it organized a handful of Swanton Berry Farms workers. Swanton is the nation's largest producer of organic strawberries.

Strawberry Workers Finally Win Contract

May 2001 IBEW Journal