Firebaugh tomato workers vote to unionize

By Robert Rodriguez / The Fresno BeeJuly 13, 2012 

The United Farm Workers of America scored a victory Wednesday with the successful vote to unionize more than 200 Firebaugh tomato workers.

The employees, who harvest fresh tomatoes for Gargiulo Inc., won the hard-fought election by a vote of 186 to 40.

About 170 workers had been on strike since Monday to protest alleged threats and intimidation by company officials against their efforts to unionize. Gargiulo officials could not be reached for comment Wednesday.

UFW vice president Armando Elenes praised the workers for coming together: "This is a very significant accomplishment. It really shows what a group of employees can accomplish. And it sends a powerful message that they won't put up with certain working conditions or threats."

Officials with the Agriculture Labor Relations Board, which oversaw Wednesday's election, said the company can accept the election results and begin a collective bargaining agreement with the workers, or file an objection with the state labor relations board.

If the board agrees to hear an objection, a hearing will be held at a future date, said Eduardo Blanco, acting regional director for the ALRB's Visalia office.

Wednesday's union victory comes about two weeks after the UFW signed a three-year agreement for 800 employees of Pacific Triple E in Tracy -- one of the largest fresh tomato companies in the United State.

The Pacific Triple E contract calls for wage increases ranging from 12 percent to more than 50 percent for hourly and daily rate employees. It also provides a pension plan, a grievance procedure and job-security provisions.

Elenes could not recall the last time the union held an election in the central San Joaquin Valley. In late June, the union won an election in Salinas to represent 340 vegetable workers.

Elenes said the Gargiulo workers will soon meet to discuss what they would like to see in their employee contract.

"We want to be able to come up with something that meets the needs of the individual employees and the employer," Elenes said.

Although the union has now successfully organized more than 1,000 tomato harvesters, Elenes said they are not intentionally targeting the industry.

"Our interest is to represent all agriculture employees," Elenes said, "and that is what we are doing."

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