Of Salad And Struggle


Laura Lopez looked overdressed for the 90-degree heat scorching Tracy, Calif. Wearing insulated overalls and winter jackets, she and her co-workers clocked out after 10-hour shifts inside a chilly food processing plant where temperatures are as low as 34 degrees.

“I’ve worked here for seven years, but I only make $9 an hour and pay $80 a week for health insurance. I’m a single mother of four and every month I fall further behind,” Lopez said.

Her struggle is typical of many workers at Taylor Farms, the world’s largest processor of salads and fresh-cut produce. The company averages almost $2 billion in annual revenue and supplies to major grocers, retailers and restaurant chains, including Walmart and McDonald’s. But workers like Lopez make poverty wages and little to no benefits while suffering abusive treatment from management.

They work in extreme conditions, yet the company denies them insulated clothing and protective equipment. It has forced workers to clean up a biohazard without hazmat gear.

Last October, Taylor Farms workers began organizing for living wages and respect with Local 601 in Stockton, Calif. An election for union representation was held in March, but anti-worker tactics by the company compelled the National Labor Relations Board to impound ballots. Months later, the labor board continues its investigation into dozens of unfair labor practices by the company.

But what started as an ambitious drive to organize 900 workers at the company’s plants in Tracy is turning into an industry-wide movement for worker justice in the state’s food processing sector.

Taylor Farms workers are forming the leading edge of an effort to overthrow abusive employment schemes in the food supply chain.

The Rotten Truth Behind Fresh Produce

“For the past 10 years, ever since I have been working, it has been as a temporary agency worker. As a temp worker, I have no health care, sick or vacation pay or retirement security,” said Jose Gonzalez.

Gonzalez’s story reflects a growing trend at Taylor Farms and food processing plants throughout California’s Central Valley. The long-term abuse of temp workers, or permatemps, is a model of worker exploitation embraced by the company, which staffs two-thirds of its operations in Tracy with workers from two outside agencies.

“Taylor Farms has the money to pay fair wages. Instead, it employs a majority of workers through temporary staffing agencies that pay minimum wage, at best, with no benefits and no guarantee they will have a job the next day,” said Teamsters President Jim Hoffa. “Some of these so-called temps have worked at Taylor Farms for as long as 10 years. They work long hours in unsafe conditions, and they are often fired once they become injured or ill.”

By using temps, Taylor Farms is able to shirk responsibility for its workers while maintaining maximum control over the workforce. For example, injured temp workers trying to file for workers’ compensation are bounced back and forth between the company and the agencies, all of whom deny being the actual employer responsible for compensating the worker.

Fifty years ago, the abuse of temp labor in California’s agricultural sector inspired civil rights icon Cesar Chavez to build a movement that led to the formation of the United Farm Workers union. Today the temp worker shell game has moved from the fields to the food processing facilities. At Taylor Farms, one temp agency keeps its workers in company-owned housing, a practice reminiscent of company stores that held workers in debt bondage in 19th Century coal towns. Another agency has its office located on Taylor Farms’ property, and Taylor Farms is its only client.

“As a temp, I feel like I have no future. It’s like I’m a modern-day slave,” Gonzalez said.

But like Chavez in the 1960s, Gonzalez and his co-workers are fighting back. The workers have taken their stories to the state capitol to lobby for California Assembly Bill 1897, a Teamster-sponsored bill that would establish joint-employer liability for temp workers. AB 1897 would put companies like Taylor Farms on the hook for working conditions and labor law violations suffered by its subcontracted workforce.

With the support of the Teamsters and the California Labor Federation, Taylor Farms workers led the charge in support of AB 1897 on four lobbying days, getting the bill passed the State Senate and Assembly despite powerful opposition by big business groups. The legislation now awaits the governor’s signature.

“We are one step closer to preventing companies from engaging in a 21st century scam by claiming the men and women who do their work are not really employees but ‘temporary’ workers for labor contractors or agencies,” added Hoffa. “Holding a corporation accountable for violations on its shop floor is an important step in the right direction.”

Mobilizing for Justice in the Valley

When Taylor Farms workers dared to stand up for their rights, few anticipated such a merciless response by the company. After all, more than 2,500 Taylor Farms workers in Salinas, Calif. are represented by Teamsters Local 890 and the union has enjoyed a positive relationship with the company there for many years.

But Tracy is different. A number of workers have been illegally terminated and others suspended in retaliation for organizing with the Teamsters. The company threatened immigrant workers with deportation and deployed an army of union-busters to physically threaten and harass union supporters. On election day the company hired armed guards to further intimidate workers trying to vote.

These and other attacks – including racist hate speech against workers by managers – led to the NLRB impounding workers’ ballots. In addition to unfair labor practices, there is an ongoing OSHA investigation and numerous discrimination claims.

“These past few months have been tough on us,” said Jesus Herrera, a Taylor Farms temp worker who spoke in June at a 700-strong rally in front of the plant. “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.”

Workers in Tracy are acutely aware that their struggle is much bigger than Taylor Farms. California’s Central Valley produces more than a quarter of the nation’s food supply but suffers some of the highest poverty rates in the country. It is a cruel irony that so many workers in the region who feed America are barely able to feed their own families.

Teamsters in California, led by Joint Council 7 in San Francisco, have committed to a long-term struggle for workplace and community justice throughout the Central and Salinas Valleys.

“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 to the middle class,” said Teamsters International Vice President Rome Aloise, who is president of Joint Council 7 and Director of the Dairy Conference and Food Processing Divisions of the Teamsters.

California Teamsters are building an alliance of valley food workers along with other labor organizations across the state.

The alliance will serve as a vehicle for workers in the canneries, dairy and food processing to take political action and fight for worker justice. With immigrants and Latino families making up a large portion of valley communities, the alliance will mobilize for better political representation and equality for these marginalized workers. It will also raise awareness about unsustainable industry practices that are damaging air and water quality in the valley, which is among the worst in the nation.

“We are going to bring Taylor Farms workers and others throughout the valley with us into the middle class,” said Aloise.

Back in Tracy, the struggle is personal for Laura Lopez. “Being a single mom and tending to my family is very difficult. I have no choice but to work long hours, sometimes as long has 14 hours a day, six days a week.”

Her co-worker, Celia Ceron – a temp agency employee since 2003 and mother of two – adds, “This is why we need a union, because we need a radical change in our lives. No matter what happens, we have already won something important: the knowledge that we do have rights and our voices can be heard.”