(TRACY, Calif.) – Teamsters General President Jim Hoffa led a major rally on Thursday in support of 900 food processing workers at Taylor Farms, the largest supplier of fresh-cut produce in the world. More than 700 Teamsters, Taylor Farms workers and community supporters packed in front of a stage outside the company’s plant in Tracy, Calif. where low-wage workers have been organizing against poverty pay, abusive working conditions, and extreme anti-union retaliation by the company.
“I bring you greetings from the 1.4 million members of the Teamsters union,” Hoffa told workers at the rally. “I’ve heard about the lack of respect here, the fact that people can’t use the restroom when they need to, and that workers have been here ten years and are temporary employees. That’s got to change – and we’re going to change it.”
Hoffa stood before a large crowd of workers holding signs that said “Dignity for All Workers” and “Food Workers Feed America.” Chants of “Si Se Puede” (Yes We Can) and “Teamster Power” erupted as other speakers took to the stage, including workers like Brenda Vega.
“I’ve seen the injustices inside Taylor Farms,” Vega said to the crowd. “Pregnant women are forced to work over 12 hours. They’re not allowed to go to the bathroom. They’re not allowed to go to the doctor. We don’t have the right to insurance for us or our families. We don’t have the right to wage increases. We’re called temporary workers for ten years or more. This has to stop. We need a union.”
Taylor Farms supplies packaged salads and fruits to major retailers, food stores and restaurant chains, including Walmart and McDonalds. In 2012, the company’s revenue was $1.8 billion – almost five times its revenue in 2007. But its workers in Tracy are paid as little as $8 an hour while working up to 16 hour days, 6 days a week in rooms chilled to 34 degrees. The workers are organizing for better conditions, fair wages and union representation with Teamsters Local 601.
“The person that I am today is the person who had the opportunity to go to school and have a better life because my parents went to work for a Teamster cannery,” said Ashley Alvarado, Secretary-Treasurer of Local 601 in Stockton, Calif. “Two years later we had our own house, a middle class lifestyle, and insurance. This is the kind of opportunity you all deserve in America.”
“We know that working in the valley and working as Teamsters in the canneries and in food processing is the ticket for many people to move into the middle class,” said Teamsters International Vice President Rome Aloise, who heads Teamsters Joint Council 7 in Oakland. “We are going to bring Taylor Farms workers with us into the middle class.”
Taylor Farms workers began organizing for a union last year. Their efforts have dovetailed a broader statewide campaign to crack down on the abuse of temporary workers by companies like their own, which uses temp agencies to staff two-thirds of its operations in Tracy.
Earlier in the day before Thursday’s rally, workers were in Sacramento with Hoffa and other leaders to support AB 1897, a bill that would hold companies responsible for workers’ rights violations committed by their labor suppliers. They held a press conference with the author of the bill, California Assemblymember Roger Hernandez, to hail its passage out of the Senate Labor Committee this week; the bill passed the full Assembly in May. Hoffa and Hernandez called the increasing use of long-term temp workers a corporate shell game that is holding down wages and working conditions for workers throughout the economy.
“We have to decide what kind of America we want to live in – what kind of California we want to allow corporate bosses to give us,” Hernandez told workers at the rally in Tracy. “This stand we are taking here is the front line in the war between workers and greedy corporate owners.”
Other unions came out to the rally in support of Taylor Farms workers. “When you knock a few of us down, you knock us all down and we take it personally,” said Art Pulaski, Executive Secretary-Treasurer of the 2.1 million-member California Labor Federation.
“I come here from Los Angeles with a message of unity and support,” said Ron Herrera, Secretary-Treasurer of Teamsters Local 396 in Covina, Calif. “It is extremely important for Taylor Farms to know that not only is Northern California in this fight, Southern California – with 130,000 Teamsters – is in this fight today. We can’t let any company exploit Latino workers.”
Workers who spoke at the rally described harsh conditions in the plants. They said workers don’t report workplace injuries for fear of being fired, as has happened to other workers. They are denied sick leave, vacation time, and retirement benefits. The company refuses to provide workers with insulated clothing and protective gear to perform their jobs. Meanwhile, Taylor Farms workers in nearby Salinas, Calif. are Teamsters and make up to $3 more per hour than workers in Tracy. They also have good health care, retirement benefits, paid sick and vacation days, and fair work rules.
When workers in Tracy came together to fight for what their coworkers in Salinas have, the company responded with retaliatory firings, intimidation, and other extreme tactics. An election for union representation held in March ended with the National Labor Relations Board impounding ballots due to the company’s unfair labor practices, which are currently being investigated.
“I’ve been working here for six years and have not seen change,” said Taylor Farms temp worker Jesus Herrera. “I’ve worked 80 hour weeks and I’m still a temp worker – how is that possible? These past few months have been tough on us. Some of us have been harassed and threatened. And some of us have even been fired for standing up for our rights. But every time I see them treat somebody wrong it makes me fight harder for this union.”
“They’ve got three companies here. When we’re done there’s going to be one company with good wages and good health care,” Hoffa said. “The one thing we want CEO Bruce Taylor to know is this: change is coming!”