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Farmworkers, Activists Protest Outside of Driscoll’s on Cesar Chavez Day

Driscoll’s, the world’s largest berry distributor, has a reputation of being socially responsible in an industry often criticized for abuses. Even so, farmworkers and activists are targeting the family-owned company, saying it allows unfair labor practices.

Outside the company’s headquarters in Watsonville, about two dozen protesters called for a boycott of its berries. They chose Cesar Chavez Day on Thursday to press for higher pay and better working conditions.

“Boycott Driscoll’s! Boycott Driscoll’s!” the group chanted, holding up signs that read “No More Blood Berries” and “Support Worker Rights.”

The demonstration is part of a month-long West Coast effort to strengthen the boycott. Lead organizer Ramon Torres of Familias Unidas por la Justica said he hopes to win a union contract later this year.

“A boycott is the only way to make sure that farmworkers have rights, you know? It’s the only weapon we have to make these companies do the right thing,” he said.

Though the protesters were mostly activists, Torres and a few farmworkers at the march pick berries for Sakuma Brothers Farms, an independent grower for Driscoll’s in Washington state. The laborers have taken the farm to court over pay and housing issues. Now they want Driscoll’s to force Sakuma to accept the workers’ union contract.

Driscoll’s CEO Kevin Murphy said that’s not the company’s place.

“We feel very strongly that it’s not our role to tell employees that they have to unionize or not unionize. We totally believe in the right for workers to organize,” he said. “Anyway we can facilitate Sakuma working with their employees better, we’re all for that, but we can’t force them to join a union.”

Torres said he doesn’t see the logic.

“They can’t make Sakuma sign a contract, but they can support exploitation?” he said.

About 700 farmers worldwide supply Driscoll’s with berries. Though they operate as independent businesses, they’re supposed to meet the distributor’s worker welfare standards, which include some of the highest wages.

“When we hear these kinds of accusations, we take them very seriously,” Murphy said.

The protesters disagree, and they want stronger protections. But part of the problem is Washington’s labor laws. It’s harder for agricultural workers to win union contracts there because the state doesn’t grant collective bargaining rights to farmworkers like a few other states do. California, for example, has the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act.

“That has a very clear process for unionization, and we’re in support of that,” he said. “The problem in Washington state is that there isn’t that system. While there’s a right for people to unionize, there’s no process to follow, and I think that’s part of the issue.”

Still, pickers in Mexico who went on strike last year have also joined the boycott in hopes of getting a better contract too. They want to build this boycott on the scale of Cesar Chavez’s grape strike of the 1960s to instigate industry-wide reforms that go beyond Driscoll’s.

“We’re not fighting for only our union, we’re fighting for all workers,” Torres said.

The labor movement in Mexico also put Driscoll’s at the center of a push to improve working conditions for farmworkers there. And Driscoll’s stepped up to the plate as a leader for change. The company pressured the Mexican government to help end the strike and has started a fair trade pilot program in Baja California with Costco and Whole Foods.

Mario Steta, Driscoll’s general manager for its Mexico operations, leads a coalition of government, NGOs and businesses -- called the International Produce Alliance to Alliance to Promote a Socially Responsible Industry -- which is looking at overall agricultural labor practices in Mexico. In addition, Murphy said that another executive is working with the Produce Market Association in the U.S. to look at worker welfare standards here.

Murphy said Driscoll’s is doing what it can. But it’s power may be limited because it’s neither a grower or a retailer.

“Vendors, farmers and customers all need to be part of the conversation too,” he said.