Farmworkers win rate hike from Driscoll’s supplier after walkout, petition

Farmworkers at a supplier for Driscoll’s, the largest berry distributor in the world, won a raise earlier this month — as well as some Covid-19 safety measures — following a series of labor actions demanding better pay and working conditions.

Strawberry pickers get paid by the box, and must hustle through fields to make a decent wage. So when Laguna Farms, in California’s Central Coast, told workers to pick only the best berries without raising their pay, as Ag Insider reported last month, they staged a walkout. The demand meant it would take workers longer to fill a box, so they would earn less money than usual.

The owner called the sheriff on the strikers, and later sent them to fields where good berries were even harder to find. Central Coast United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE) filed a complaint on behalf of the workers with California’s Agricultural Labor Relations Board, charging Rancho Laguna with illegal retaliation.

As the end of May approached with still no resolution from the state and no increase in pay, the workers planned another walkout. “It seems like word got out, because the company suddenly said, ‘We’re giving you a raise to $2 a box,’” said Hazel Davalos, CAUSE community organizing director. The previous per-box rate was $1.90.

But the raise was too late as far as the workers were concerned. They normally get a bump in pay this time of year to compensate for the waning harvest, when it’s harder to fill a box. Not only that, they’d heard rumors that a supervisor had been out for a week with Covid-19 but no one told them about it.

So they decided to ask for $2.15 a box.

But instead of staging another strike, Davalos said, the workers tried a different approach. They collected workers’ signatures on a petition and held a protest outside Driscoll’s Santa Maria office on May 29, urging the company to intervene on their behalf. “Driscoll’s we need you to take action,” the petition states. “Your supplier, Rancho Laguna Farms, is mistreating workers and disregarding health and safety during COVID.”

Driscoll’s and Rancho Laguna responded June 9, after workers posted the petition online and collected nearly 60,000 signatures. They demanded fair pay, safe working conditions, including notifying workers about Covid-19 cases among co-workers and staff, and an end to retaliatory practices.

“We listened to everyone’s concerns directly, so that we could better understand all circumstances involved,” Driscoll’s said in a statement. “Driscoll’s swiftly followed-up on these concerns and will continue to monitor Rancho Laguna Farms’ progress in this area and ensure all commitments are fully implemented.”

In a memo sent to employees last Monday, Laguna Farms announced that it would pay $2.10 per box, 5 cents less than the workers asked for, and would pay the same rate next season, “barring any unforeseen economic downturns.” The company also installed additional structures that provide shade and will allow for social distancing during breaks, and assured workers that health department records confirm that no Laguna Farms employees tested positive for Covid-19.

Davalos attributes the company’s turnaround to “really well done worker organizing and an outpouring of community support.”