Calif. strawberry workers get boost from N.J. rabbis

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Last month, the farm workers' union and its allies pressed their case during a rally in Montclair, N.J.

Rabbis Shifra Penzias of the Jewish Congregation of Kinnelon, N.J., addressed last month's rally, reading a statement signed by a dozen New Jersey Reform rabbis urging "Kings supermarkets, a carrier of Driscoll brand strawberries, to demand that Driscoll respect strawberry workers' rights."

Nationwide, more than 250 rabbis have supported a statement backing strawberry workers, according to Avram Lyon, national executive director of the Jewish Labor Committee.

Rallies have also been held in New York and in California.

But this drive comes as the union faced a setback to organizing efforts last month, when anti-UFW workers at Coastal Berry filed a petition seeking representation by an independent, non-UFW union.

At the rally, members of the clergy in attendance presented their concerns to Brien Delp, manager of the Kings supermarket in Montclair. The pro-union campaign is backed by the National Conference of Catholic Bishops.

The union's New York director, Sarah Johnson said Driscoll controls about 25 percent of the country's eight major strawberry coolers, the companies that ship and package the fruit.

But Driscoll does not have direct responsibility for the strawberry workers, said Phil Adrian, Driscoll's manager of public affairs and marketing. "We are shippers. Growers contract with Driscoll; those who harvest the fruit are the employees of the contract growers."

Johnson disagreed. Driscoll, she said. "has the power to control and influence better working conditions because they dictate every aspect of the growing process. Wherever Driscoll is sold, we're informing the public about the bad conditions."

The union's anti-Driscoll claims are being dismissed by spokespersons from Kings and other sources. In a statement, Kings president and chief executive officer, Alan C. Levitan, said Kings has "always supported full and equal rights of all workers to fair and just treatment, respect and honor." But while "farm workers rightfully deserve job security, a living wage, health insurance, clean drinking water and bathrooms in the field, and protection of their basic rights free from any kind of harassment," their "right to organize is a matter for the workers themselves to decide."

Kings' position is based, officials say, on the result of a June fact-finding mission to the California strawberry fields by Cheryl Good, the company's manager of community relations and consumer affairs. From June 26 to 30, Good visited several different farms and picked strawberries for about an hour.

She denied there were inadequate restroom facilities, noting that there was one portable toilet for every 20 women and one for every 20 men, the number required by law. She said the workers seemed to be content and was told that the workers have health insurance and full benefits.

"Most of them certainly had smiles," although she acknowledged that "because of the language barrier it was difficult to talk" to them.

The UFW and its allies claim that reports like Good's reflect a skewed view of the strawberry fields.

UFW's Johnson said strawberry pickers in California have not received a pay increase in 10 years, and that they earn about $8,500 per seven- to nine-month season. She said bathrooms and drinking water are inaccessible on the strawberry fields; if there is a bathroom, it is filthy.

Johnson noted that when the workers show interest in forming a union, they are discriminated against in rehiring, blacklisted and, on some occasions, physically beaten up.

The workers have no health coverage and many of them must retire before the age of 30 because of health problems, according to Johnson.

Rabbi Laurence Groffman of Temple B'nai Jeshurun in Short Hills, who attended the rally, said he believes the supermarkets seem like they want "to do the right thing."

Rabbis Peter Kasdan of Temple Emanu-El of West Essex — one of those who signed the New Jersey statement — visited strawberry workers' camps about a year ago.

Comparing the labor camps to Holocaust death camps, Kasdan said the workers are the inmates and the foreman is the kapo. "His only job is to keep the `lowlifes' in line, making sure they get beat up when they talk about a union. [The workers] are happily married Roman Catholics and the women are asked to have sex [with the foreman] and they have to because they and their husbands would lose their jobs" if the women refused.

"My congregation hasn't gotten to the point of boycotting — the UFW doesn't want to — but I'm getting to the point of boycotting" certain brands of strawberries, Kasdan said. "If I have my way, I will start to call strawberries traif."