MAXWELL:  Contract offers model and hope

7/25/1999 – Printed in the PERSPECTIVE section of the St Petersburg Times Newspaper


For the first time in many years, something tangibly good has happened for a group of Florida farm workers. Last Wednesday, Quincy Farms, one of the nation’s largest producers of white-button and portobello mushrooms, signed a contract with United Farm Workers. The California-based union will represent Quincy’s 450 pickers and packers.

The contract is significant because its terms promise to bring some dignity to the lives of those whose concerns are generally dismissed by growers and ignored by government officials who profit from close ties with agribusiness.

For many years, Quincy’s employees have been fighting for higher pay and better working conditions. Ironically, one of the most hurtful indignities the workers faced, which may seem small to the general public, was having to ask belligerent bosses for permission to use the bathroom.

That and other unjust practices may now change.

Under the 18-month contract, Quincy Farms, which distributes to Southeastern supermarkets under the PRIME Mushroom label, agrees to start treating its employees like those in other industries are treated. Some employees will receive higher wages, and others will qualify for profit sharing, bonus checks and other amenities. In both instances, all employees _ luggers, haulers and pickers _ will see their general circumstances improve significantly.

Quincy will go to the next level and guarantee its workers affordable health insurance, a privilege that most of America takes for granted. The company also will offer options to join a 401(k) savings plan and will give paid vacation.

“We’re going to be normal people now,” said a picker who has been with the company for eight years. “We’ll be just like the people who work at Wal-Mart, Federal Express and the bank.”

Indeed, Quincy’s is a bold move for a company in Florida, the nation’s second-largest agricultural state, with 300,000 farm workers. Florida, like other Southern states, dislikes collective bargaining, and most companies see unions as their enemy. Two years ago, when workers protested outside Quincy Farms’ fence, company president Rick Lazzarini called the sheriff. Many were taken to jail and 85 were fired. Although 24 got back their jobs and were never charged with crimes, the incident produced lasting rancor and unwittingly raised the stock of United Farm Workers among the rank and file.

A cocky Lazzarini declared that he would never bargain with the union. Why? Because Florida is a right-to-work state and farm workers are not covered under national or state laws that grant most other employees the right to establish and join unions.

The contract also is far-reaching because, among other things, it protects workers from being fired without just cause, and it authorizes union shop stewards to handle grievances. Vindictive bosses can no longer treat the plant floor and fields as their fiefdoms.

In yet another arena, many leaders of the town of Quincy, who had opposed the union, have softened their tone. Rick McCaskill, president of the local Chamber of Commerce two years ago, for example, used to call United Farm Workers organizers “outside agitators” and “liars” who “keep lying and lying.” Today, such harsh talk is disappearing.

This radical change in Quincy Farms’ attitude toward the union is occurring because of its new leader, Greg Verhagen, who came aboard three months ago. Verhagen, who ran a unionized mushroom firm in Canada, does not believe unions are necessarily bad for business.

“It’s very simple why the company decided to work cooperatively with the employees and the union,” he told the New York Times. “It’s time to get on with building the future and growing the future. The union presented itself as the new light for organized labor in that it wants to work in partnership for profit with companies like ourselves.”

The hope among farm workers and their advocates elsewhere is that other companies, especially those in citrus, fern and tomatoes, will emulate Quincy Farms.

For several years, the Coalition of Immokalee Workers _ which has been demonized by Florida Gov. Jeb Bush’s personal agricultural envoy _ has struggled to get Collier County’s major tomato growers to sit down and negotiate with them as representatives of the area’s thousands of farm workers.

After work stoppages, a 30-day hunger strike and a personal appeal from former President Jimmy Carter, however, only one company has talked with the coalition. Like the leaders of the United Farm Workers who negotiated the mushroom contract, Immokalee organizers believe that cooperation _ through negotiated contracts _ will increase productivity.

For his part, Arturo Rodriguez, president of United Farm Workers, explained why the union joined hands with Quincy Farms.

His words offer a lesson for Florida’s other growers: “We see real value in creating a much less confrontational relationship, demonstrating that the union and the employees can be an asset to the business rather than being their enemies. One of the issues the nation is facing is a tighter labor force. Everyone’s looking for quality, productive workers, and we think we can assist in making that happen.”

During his gubernatorial campaign, Bush met with members of the Coalition of Immokalee Workers, listened to their concerns and promised to help tomato workers share in Florida’s prosperity.

Bush, who enjoys the power of the bully pulpit, has an opportunity to use his influence and the Quincy Farms-United Farm Workers alliance to urge other growers to sit down and negotiate with their laborers.