A labor dispute that erupted on a blueberry farm near McFarland over Monday and Tuesday illustrates the complexities and hardships of a difficult business not just for farm workers, but farmers as well.

At issue is whether 60 cents is a fair price for the strenuous effort to pick a single pound of blueberries.

A majority of workers on the 124-acre Gourmet Blueberry-California LLC farm off of Kyte Road felt it wasn’t fair and walked off the job Monday.

By Tuesday, the UFW had been called and a full-blown protest, replete with iconic red flags and megaphoned cries of “Huelga! Huelga!” ensued.

For Armando Elenes, national vice president of the UFW, the issue wasn’t just the price of 60 cents, it was that the price had changed.

“They’re playing games with the wages, dropping the prices,” he said. “Workers need stability in what they’re paid.”

He said he’d received an overwhelmingly positive response to a petition for a vote to unionize.

Now the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board, which had people at the farm on Tuesday, will verify signatures and, if they’re accepted, a vote could be held within the next 48 hours.

“If they vote to unionize, we will deal with the issue of wages immediately,” Elenes said. “Then we’d probably negotiate a contract during the off-season.”

But the wage issue is exactly where the complexity of farming comes in, according to farm manager Buck Klein, owner of Klein Management Inc.

That’s because growers don’t get a set price for their product.

When crops start to ripen, farmers can get a higher price. As the fruit “comes on” and floods the market, the market reacts by setting a lower price.

That, in turn, means a lower price per pound for workers, said Klein.

“Fresh fruit is a tough market,” he said.

At the beginning of the season, he was able to get a good enough price for his berries that he could pay workers 95 cents per pound.

“Then you have waves of fruit,” he said. “The market drops so we have to lower our wages. But we never go lower than 60 cents a pound.”

But with more fruit ready to pick, workers are able to rack up a lot more pounds in less time, he explained.

Even at 60 cents a pound, he said, workers on Sunday averaged $17.45 per hour for a seven and a half hour day.

Indeed, a printout of Monday’s wages showed one worker earned $165, or $22 an hour. The lowest paid worker on Monday earned $97.87, or $13.05. California’s minimum wage is $10 per hour.

Klein refuted charges from the UFW’s Elenes that he lowered wages in order to boost profits for the farm.

In fact, with the UFW convention coming up and an anticipated visit from former President Bill Clinton, Klein wondered if he was being made into a political scapegoat.

“The market is the market,” he said. “That’s what dictates our prices. Even if there’s a union contract and we negotiate a price with them, it’s the same thing. The market is the market.”

Klein needs about $2.85 per pound on the berries to make a profit.

Right now, they’re selling for about $2.89 to $3.10 depending on a number of factors, including how they’re packaged.

That price pays for everything, the workers in the fields, shipping, packing, marketing, insurance, growing costs, etc.

Klein was frustrated by the week’s events, saying he’s never had a labor issue in the past.

“I think we treat our workers well,” he said. “When we get good prices, we share that with the workers. I want good workers not just for this season but for next year as well.”

Hand-picking is still the best way to harvest blueberries, he explained.

Blueberries don’t ripen all at once. Each bush can be picked seven or eight times as the berries turn at their own pace, Klein said.

There are machines that can do the work. But machines can’t discern ripe berries from green ones, making for a lot of waste and higher losses.

Workers I spoke with were mixed about the wages and how they were treated.

Cristal Carvajal and Anastasia Franco, who were among the protesters, both said 60 cents a pound was just too low to make a decent wage.

They also complained that the farm expects them to work seven days a week without added compensation.

Klein was flummoxed by that complaint.

“Last year, I tried rotating crews so every crew had at least one day off and they all threatened to quit because they didn’t want to lose a day of work,” he said.

He added that he does pay an extra nickel per pound on Sundays.

“That way they are making time and a half.”

Of the approximately 400 workers typically in the fields at Gourmet Blueberry, only 80 or 90 were working on Tuesday.

Some were happy with the wages, saying even at 60 cents a pound, that was more than they could make hourly (a maximum of $600 per week).

Others continued working because they couldn’t afford not to.

“Wages here were good to start, but the price went lower and lower as the season continued,” said Enedina Santiago as she pulled ripe berries from a branch and dropped them into a bucket tied to her chest.

It’s not fair, she said. But “rent and bills don’t wait for you.”

I asked Klein what he anticipated next.

“My gut feeling is, we’ll have to bring in machines but it’ll be too late. We’ll pick a couple more blocks with the crew we have left and abandon the rest.

“We’ll lose a lot of crop. A lot of money.”

One observer told me the fact that so many people were willing to walk off the job speaks of a serious worker shortage.

Indeed, a commenter on the Delano Life Facebook page, which posted photos of the strike early Tuesday morning, used the opportunity to entice people to work for a different labor contractor.

“...come work for Jaguar contracting we need people 10.25 hr 9 hrs a day 6 days a week,” wrote Isaac Nadal.

Several people quickly responded.

Opinions expressed in this column are those of Lois Henry. Her column runs Wednesdays and Sundays. Comment at http://www.bakersfield.com, call her at 395-7373 or email lhenry@bakersfield.com.

 

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Lois Henry appears on “First Look with Scott Cox” every Wednesday on KERN 1180 AM and 96.1 FM from 9 to 10 a.m. The show is also broadcast live on www.bakersfield.com. You can get your 2 cents in by calling 842-KERN.

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