Local rabbis denounce oppression of strawberry workers

Too few toilets. Forced sexual favors. Long hours working without overtime pay and less than minimum wage.

These conditions are endured every day by migrant farm workers who pick strawberries for Watsonville area growers, according to a new interfaith group called A Just Harvest.

Comprised of Bay Area rabbis, pastors and lay leaders, the group joined strawberry pickers and labor leaders Dec. 17 at an Oakland press conference to declare a pacifist's version of war on the berry growers.

Stopping just short of advocating an industry-wide boycott, the clergy called on both the public and grocers to avoid buying strawberries from the growers' collective Driscoll, which they claim is the chief culprit.

The clergy pledged an ongoing campaign to help the strawberry pickers unionize and pursue better working conditions.

"We're not talking about people in Afghanistan. This is in Watsonville, only 1-1/2 hours away in our extended Bay Area," said Rabbi Dan Goldblatt of Danville's Congregation Beth Chaim.

"We have so many [crisis] situations where we wonder what we can do. This is one issue where we can make a difference," the Renewal rabbi said in an interview.

In addition to Goldblatt, Jewish representatives at the gathering were Rabbi Steven Chester of the Reform Temple Sinai in Oakland and Rabbi Michael Lerner of the Renewal Beyt Tikkun: The House of Love and Healing in San Francisco.

At the meeting Lerner, drew parallels between the workers' struggle and the story of Chanukah. He also spoke on the tradition of social justice in Judaism.

In October, Goldblatt was part of a delegation from A Just Harvest, which investigated the work and living conditions of Watsonville strawberry workers. The visit revealed many of the aforementioned working conditions as well as an atmosphere of intimidation preventing the workers from airing their grievances, Goldblatt said.

Even those who air grievances to the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board allege that their complaints fall on deaf ears, he said.

With translation assistance from United Farm Workers co-founder Dolores Huerta, two strawberry workers at the

conference related their difficulties.

"They spoke in straightforward terms their desire to live their lives without harassment, so they could do their work and support their families," Goldblatt recalled.

"They said, `Help us live our lives free of fear,' and we said, `We would do what we could," he said.

Most of the workers support a family on just $6,000 a year. They work 10- to 12-hour days, often in pesticide-laced fields, and live in dilapidated compounds provided by either the growers or a bank, Goldblatt said.

Married women and mothers reported to the delegation that they must give sexual favors to field foremen to keep their jobs. Rapes in the fields are common, the delegates learned. And when the workers are kept late in the fields, they are reported by daycare providers to child welfare for neglecting their children.

"They are dealing with survival issues every moment, yet they are not desperate and hopeless. They are trying to create a life for their children. It was very moving," Goldblatt said.

"In the mainstream press, [the situation] appears in the business section as a labor/management issue. But it's a human issue — one of social justice," the rabbi said.

Mark Munger, a marketing specialist at Driscoll Strawberry Associates Inc., said he was unaware of A Just Harvest. Munger said his company would never thwart the pickers' wishes to organize. He added that he had no knowledge of an atmosphere of intimidation in the fields.

"We are pretty close to the workers," Munger explained. "Part of our contract with the growers is that they exceed all state and national standards with regard to sanitation and field conditions. We send auditors regularly to check on these things."

One hundred area clergy at the press conference signed a petition requesting that the growers drop the alleged intimidation and allow the workers to organize.

Similar petitions will be circulated among churches and synagogues throughout the Bay Area. Strawberry workers also will appear at the congregations to talk about their situation.

Members of A Just Harvest plan to inform their congregants as to which growers treat their workers fairly and cultivate berries without the use of pesticides.

Lori Eppstein

Lori Eppstein is a former staff writer.