June 23, 2005 – The United Farm Workers Union wants American wine drinkers to boycott Gallo Wines because, in the midst of the opulent California wine country, people who labor in the vineyards of Americaâ€™s largest wine maker face a host of substandard conditions.
Until last April, 29 farm laborers employed by a company that Gallo Vineyards contracted to supply them with workers lived in Windsor, California in a three-bedroom, one-bathroom house where the walls and floors were ripped and dirty. Exposed wires littered the place. The septic system was broken and sewage puddled on the floor. The workers bathed with a garden hose in the backyard, cooked on propane camp stoves and slept on mattresses laid wall to wall across the floor.
These workers, like the majority of Galloâ€™s farm labor, were contract workers, which means that they are hired seasonally by a third party employer. Although the union represents both Galloâ€™s 85 regular employees and as many as 220 seasonal contract workers, under the terms of the last union contract, signed in 2000, Gallo does not extend health benefits, grievance procedures and vacation to contract workers. Since that time, Gallo has continued to increase its use of seasonal contractors.
Workers had taken note of the trend toward a lower paid temporary workforce, and the union recognized a growing double standard in the workplace. When the time came to negotiate a new contract with Gallo last August, the union refused to sign an agreement that ignored contract employees. As a result, the talks stalled.
The union says the despicable living conditions underscore why Gallo should extend benefits to contract employees
Though Gallo says it was unaware of the housing in which the Windsor contract employees were living, the union says the despicable living conditions underscore why Gallo should extend benefits to contract employees. The union also wants the company to increase wages from the current rate of $8.38 per hour to the $10 hourly wage that workers at other area vineyards receive.
In an effort to pressure Gallo to include such benefits and wage increases in a new union contract, last week the union launched a boycott of the over 40 labels produced by the Gallo winery. Negotiations held yesterday between the union and the company failed to produce any concrete results, indicating that the boycott â€“ the unionâ€™s first such major nationwide action in over 20 years â€“ may continue for some time.
"Gallo is the biggest winery in America, the second biggest in the world... they can afford to do better by their workers," said Mark Grossman, UFW spokesperson. "Cesar Chavez used to say, â€˜boycotts are better than elections because the polls never close and you can vote more than once.â€™ Itâ€™s not like we need to win by 50 percent; a boycott that affects sales by two or three percent is very effective."
In recent years, boycotts have proved a useful tool in leveraging change for farmworkers. In March, a four-year boycott of Taco Bell, spurred by the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, an advocacy group composed largely of immigrants who pick tomatoes in southwest Florida, yielded better wages and working conditions for farmworkers after students at just 21 colleges and universities removed or blocked the restaurant from their campuses. In what both sides called an unprecedented agreement, the fast food company agreed to increase the amount it pays for tomatoes by a penny per pound, with the increase going directly to workers. Prior to the victory, tomato pickers were earning the same rate of payment per pound as they did 30 years ago â€“ about two tons of tomatoes for $50.
In recent years, boycotts have proved a useful tool in leveraging change for farmworkers.
A recent win in North Carolina also fuels the UFWâ€™s hope for the Gallo boycott. There, the Farm Labor Organizing Committee, a union, led a five-and-a-half-year boycott of the Mount Olive Pickle Company for using cucumber growers the union accused of mistreating workers. Backed by the National Council of Churches, an organization representing 50 million Christians, the boycott ended last September after the company agreed to raise the price it pays its cucumber suppliers so that those companies would in turn both raise workersâ€™ pay and sign a union contract with 8,500 guest workers from Mexico, making it the first union contract ever signed by growers in North Carolina.
Whether or not the Gallo boycott will prove so successful is hard to determine at this point, said Bob Bussel, director of University of Oregonâ€™s Labor Education and Research Center. Still, he said, the campaign has a few critical factors in its favor: Gallo Wine is a visible product that many people have heard of, and the campaign is working to build legitimacy by yielding a broad coalition of supporters that include a diverse network of churches, environmental groups, student organizations and a host of other unions.
"One of the biggest questions with boycotts is the extent to which the issue is compelling and can be dramatized," Bussel told The NewStandard. "People make a visceral connection between the people who pick our food and what we eat, and this issue certainly has an elemental type of moral weight. Even so, the union has been hit so hard over the last several years. Itâ€™s not as strong as it was [in the past]."
Partly due to a lack of staff and changes in the law that prevent secondary boycotts in which unions and their allies target businesses to which Gallo sells wines, the union plans to rely more heavily than ever before on the Internet to rally support. Already, it has sent emails to over 50,000 people asking them to stop drinking Gallo wine, and supporters can download bumper stickers, buttons and posters from the unionâ€™s website.
While itâ€™s far too soon to conduct surveys to determine how many people have stopped buying Gallo products, the company admits the boycott is troubling.
"Weâ€™re concerned about any threat to our product, our employees and our company. Weâ€™ll take this seriously," said John Segale, Gallo spokesperson. "We really donâ€™t see the purpose or the need for a boycott against our products."
Segale said that the boycott will only hurt workers and that itâ€™s the union, not the company, thatâ€™s to blame for the breakdown in negotiations for a new contract.
"Theyâ€™ve been bargaining in bad faith. The workers deserve a new contract," said Segale. "We think this is unwarranted, unfair and ignores the facts."
Since August, Gallo has provided all workers a 20 cent wage increase and told contract workers that Gallo would hire them directly as employees and provide them benefits if they can prove US citizenship. So far, 24 of the estimated 220 contract employees have switched, according to Segale.
Virginia Nesmith, director of the National Farm Worker Ministry, an association of 40 faith-based organizations, says the fact that so few have applied for direct employment indicates that the majority of contract employees could be undocumented.
"Companies shouldnâ€™t use intermediaries such as labor contractors to absolve themselves of their responsibility to their employees," said Nesmith. She added that Gallo perpetrates a double standard with its farm workers. "They have a history of good labor relations with their bottle workers, truckers and distillery workers. Why donâ€™t they have the same respect for the people that labor in the fields as [for] the people that labor in other parts of the business?"
Although both Gallo and the union say they are committed to ongoing negotiations for a new contract, the union says the boycott will continue. Their next meeting is scheduled for July 21.