Albion Monitor /News

Farm Workers Battle Mushroom Giant

by Eyal Press

UFW targets world's leading producer of mushroom spawn

(IPS) NEW YORK -- In the 1960s and 1970s, the United Farm Workers (UFW), led by its fiery founder, Cesar Chavez, launched a series of aggressive consumer boycotts aimed at lettuce and grape growers.

Today, with some 25,000 members and a leadership seeking to expand its base, the UFW's leading target on the East Coast is Sylvan Incorporated, the world's leading producer of mushroom spawn (the equivalent of seed), with facilities in the United States, France, Switzerland, Britain, the Netherlands, and Australia. Sylvan is being targeted because it owns and operates Quincy Farms, a factory in Florida where 85 workers were fired for trying to organize a union.

Most workers at Quincy are immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico

The UFW points to these dismissals as just one example of how the rights of farm laborers are still violated throughout the United States. In Florida, its leaders note, farm workers receive no coverage under the National Labor Relations Act, the laws that guarantee workers in other industries the right to bargain and organize collectively.

In addition, Florida is a "right-to-work" state, meaning companies can hire non-union workers even at a union shop.

Faced with such obstacles, not one of the estimated 300,000 seasonal farm workers in the state works under a union contract. But the UFW is trying to change this, starting first with Quincy Farms, the largest private employer in Gadsden County, one of Florida's poorest communities.

Most of the roughly 600 workers at Quincy are immigrants from El Salvador and Mexico. Since the mass dismissals last March, the UFW has sought to defend their rights by employing the aggressive tactics pioneered by Chavez.

The union has launched an aggressive consumer boycott throughout the southeastern United States against Prime Mushrooms, the brand name under which Quincy Farm mushrooms are sold. It has drawn support from labor and religious activists in more than five states. They have held demonstrations and picketed supermarkets.

Organizers say sympathy actions are also being planned overseas, targeting Sylvan's facilities in England, France, and Australia.

All of this, says Rebecca Flores-Harrington, UFW Vice President and a leader in the Quincy Farms organizing drive, is part of the UFW and U.S. labor movement's bold new plan to broaden its base.

Many of the workers earn between $9,000 and $14,000 per year, below the poverty line

Since John J. Sweeney's October 1995 election as head of the American Federation of the Labor-Congress of Industrial Organizations (AFL-CIO), of which the UFW is a member, labor leaders have vowed to go plant-by-plant and attempt to organize thousands of new workers.

In Florida, says Flores-Harrington, the UFW wants to organize "not just Quincy Farms, but the mushroom industry as a whole."

"Part of the labor movement's new strategy,," she explains, "is to recognize that if we're going to organize one plant we need to move on and organize the others, so that we don't put a unionized plant out of business because its profit margins are lower and its competitors will be able to undersell."

At Quincy Farms, the main concern for workers is safety. Mushrooms are grown indoors in large tills which are 10 feet off the ground. Workers, who must climb between wet, slippery racks to pluck the mushrooms, frequently fall and suffer injuries.

The danger of the job, they say, is compounded by company negligence. Workers at Quincy Farms have signed affidavits documenting how company doctors failed to treat injuries seriously, frequently sending workers straight back to work.

Many of the workers earn too little, between $9,000 and $14,000 per year, which is below the U.S. poverty line of $15,907 for a family of four, to afford health insurance.

On March 14, as workers at Quincy Farms demonstrated during their lunch hour for safe working conditions and the right to bargain collectively, the company struck back, firing 85 union supporters and calling in the county sheriff to arrest an additional 24 for alleged trespassing.

Quincy management claims that the 85 workers voluntarily left their jobs, a charge the workers successfully contested before a Florida judge, who granted them unemployment compensation.

Since the firings, Dennis Zensen, the chairman and chief executive officer of Sylvan, has received letters from more than 200 religious, labor and community organizations, urging a reinstatement of the fired workers and recognition of the workers' right to organize a union.

Zensen claims not to be worried, saying of Quincy: "The farm is running well." Sylvan's net revenues for the first half of 1996 were $3.4 million, higher than last year's figures, but unit shipments of mushrooms did decline due to cutbacks in production at Quincy Farms.

In the past, Sylvan has described Quincy Farms as a "showcase" facility. The UFW, in seeking to dispel this notion, has received a helpful shot-in-the-arm from the AFL-CIO's Union Summer program, a national project in which 1,200 students from across the country undertake three-week stints as labor organizers.

Modeled after the Freedom Summer program of 1964, when 1,000 students helped to register black voters in Mississippi, the goal of Union Summer is to bridge the gap between young people and workers.

Patricia Guzman, who is organizing the boycott against Sylvan and Prime Mushrooms in Miami, says the energy and enthusiasm of the young activists has helped. "Five independents and one 20-store chain have stopped selling Prime Mushrooms....Union Summer kids carry pickets to the stores saying 'Support Farmworkers', 'Don't Buy Prime Mushrooms'."

Like the young activists, union leaders vow to keep the pressure on.

"Until Sylvan changes its policies," say Ed Feigan, special projects coordinator at the AFL-CIO, "we will make sure that everyone who has an interest in the future of Sylvan, from the customer who buys mushrooms to the investors who own Sylvan's stock, knows that underneath Sylvan's 'showcase' lies a company that denies workers a safe workplace."

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Albion Monitor September 9, 1996 (

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