March 29, 1998 in Nation/World

Rally Decrying Strawberry Workers’ Plight Tills Broadway Field

Verena Dobnik Associated Press
 

Feminist Gloria Steinem joined a march of more than 300 people Saturday to protest what she called criminal conditions in California’s strawberry fields.

The group marched more than a mile down Broadway past stores selling berries picked by women who the United Farm Workers say aren’t paid enough to feed their families.

Steinem said strawberry growers were intransigent and fire workers trying to unionize.

“It’s criminal. … We are here for the most basic of rights, the right to organize,” said Steinem, who took up the group’s chant of “Se puede,” Spanish for “It’s possible.”

Some 20,000 workers in California - about half of them women and most not unionized - harvest about 80 percent of the nation’s strawberries a year, said Dolores Huerta, who co-founded the farm union in the 1960s.

Most of California’s strawberry workers earn about $8,000 annually, with no health insurance or other benefits, Huerta said.

With 1,500 workers at peak season, Coastal Berry in Watsonville, Calif., 70 miles southeast of San Francisco, is the single largest grower. In June, it signed an agreement saying that producers won’t interfere with a worker’s right to unionize, said Dan Hawes, a UFW national coalition coordinator.

About 6,000 stores nationwide signed letters of support for the agreement, including some corporate chains with stores on Saturday’s march route, said Hawes.

He said that Driscoll, the largest company shipping strawberries around the nation, has yet to endorse the agreement.

Driscoll Strawberry Associates “is neutral on whether there should be a union or not,” said company spokesman Phillip Adrian. “That’s up to the workers.”

Gary Coloroso, spokesman for Strawberry Workers and Farmers Alliance, an industryfunded group, said the union is misleading people. He said the industry respects the right to unionize and said strawberry workers “have clean bathrooms, drinking water and a living wage.”

The New York protest was one of four this week, with other marches scheduled in San Antonio, San Francisco and Chicago.


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