The New Factories in the Fields: Florida Mushroom Workers

The New Factories in the Fields: Florida Mushroom Workers

By Alissa Mathison with Barry E. Lee

Vol. 19, No. 3-4, 1997 pp. 21-22

“This event is a watershed.” Frank Curiel, lead organizer for the United Farm Worker’s campaign in Quincy, Florida, sat across from me, his face alive with anticipation for a Saturday march and rally. The campaign to bring union representation to the workers of Quincy Farms, a mushroom plant in northern Florida, was coming to a head. A labor and civil rights march including African American and Latino workers in the South was indeed significant. Over the last decade, the South has witnessed the influx of large numbers of Latino workers, particularly at the bottom of the wage scale where they must interact and sometimes compete with African American workers. This shift in the demographics of the workforce has complicated an already complex scenario of political, social, and economic tension. The organizing effort in Quincy has been instructive about how to organize workers in the South across racial and ethnic lines. And it has created a partnership between organized labor and the civil rights community.

Quincy Farms, a subsidiary of Sylvan, Incorporated, based in Sarver, Pennsylvania, has been accused of using racial antagonism in order to thwart unionization efforts among its Latino and African American workforce. “They have used the divide and conquer approach, keeping workers racially separated by hiring only Latinos for picking jobs and only African Americans for packing jobs,” says Elsa Curiel, a United Farm Worker staffer and long-time organizer. Ms. Curiel adds that this racial segregation is further reinforced by maintaining “separate work facilities, bathrooms, and breakrooms for pickers and packers with the strict understanding that Latinos and African Americans are not to use each other’s facilities.” The June march and rally gave “evidence that the workers have broken down the racial barriers created by management.”

It was only the previous year that the company had fired and arrested twenty-five of its employees while they were peacefully demonstrating on their lunch break. That action resulted in a boycott of the farm’s products, Prime label mushrooms, sold throughout the Southeast. Workers led the annual Martin Luther King march in Atlanta last winter and traveled frequently to Birmingham to picket the Bruno’s supermarket chain (one of the largest purchasers of Prime mushrooms).

Workers’ longstanding grievances of low pay, frequent accidents, the failure of company to treat them with dignity and respect, and no voice to remedy problems in the workplace led to unionization efforts at Quincy Farms beginning in 1995. During the summer of that year workers from Quincy Farms approached the United Farm Workers looking for help to organize. Almost immediately, according to Frank Curiel, it was apparent that before any organizing could take place, the workers had to overcome the racial and ethnic barriers built into their workplace. Besides the separate facilities for pickers and packers, “they also have separate start times so that the two departments never run into each other at work, not even in the parking lot. It’s institutional apartheid. A lot of Southern companies split their workforce like this,” says Curiel.

To break down the barriers, the union held mixed meetings with Latino and African American workers sitting next to each other rather than segregated from each other. “This strategy forced the workers to learn each others’ first names,” says Curiel. “Now the workers are calling for classes to teach English to the Latinos and Spanish to the African Americans. This will be a lasting change that can be left behind when the organizers are gone. We need to break down the cultural stereotypes.”

But the most important lesson learned by the United Farm Workers in the Quincy campaign has been how to organize in the South. “We had to integrate the civil rights style of organizing, getting the local ministers involved and reaching out to the community,” says Curiel. “Other unions will not succeed [in the South] unless they unite with the civil rights community. The only way we can do it is hand-in-hand.”

Although the workers are fighting cultural barriers, they have in common the low pay, as evidenced by the fact that many live in public housing and substandard housing conditions. The workers average between $9,000-14,000 annually, against the insistence of company president Richard Lazzarini that workers make a decent income. The work can also be treacherous; workers straddle boxes stacked up to fifteen feet high as they pick the mushrooms. While accidents are common, many work-

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ers go without coverage because the medical plan is too expensive. And perhaps just important to many workers as issues of pay, benefits, and safety on the job is the question of respect. According to Bert Perry, southeastern director of the National Council of Farm Workers Ministry, “Quincy’s management forces the workers to sign out in order to go to the restroom, as if they’re children.” Elsa Curiel concurs, noting that “some supervisors use profanity and generally talk to employees like they’re animals.”

The workers have had some success. They won cases in the local courts (the charges against the twenty-five arrested for “trespassing” were dropped and the workers received unemployment compensation). And they have also garnered national support from the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, the Coalition of Black Trade Unionists, SCLC, the NAACP, and the Rainbow Coalition.

Although 70 per cent of the workforce signed cards authorizing UFW representation, legally the company did not have to recognize the union. In fact, Quincy Farms management refuses to acknowledge that its employees want union representation. Ms. Curiel points out that “when questioned about sponsoring a vote on union representation, Mr. Lazzarini says there is no reason to vote since the workers have told him that they do not want a union.” Farm workers are not covered under the National Labor Relations Act which grants all other workers, except domestic workers, the right to organize.

While the law is an obvious hindrance, farm workers have successfully won union representation through boycotts in the past. The workers at Quincy Farms, separated at work and in their neighborhoods, in their churches and by the different languages they speak, are united in fighting the poverty that plagues both communities. “It is the soul of America that is in peril by the ruthless greed of the corporate community,” the Rev. Joseph Lowery, of the Southern Christian Leadership Conference, proclaimed at the march. In the fight to organize, both the workers and the union realize that new coalitions are essential. Other agri-businesses await the outcome in Quincy. “What we’re doing in Quincy could be a model for organizing other farm workers in the South”‘ says Frank Curiel. “What we hope for out of this fight is for legal recognition of the right for farm workers to organize like other workers.” It remains to be seen whether or not Quincy Farms recognizes the workers’ demand for a union. So far at Quincy, both sides are unyielding. Lazzarini contends that “we’re going to continue to maintain the position we have. It might last three day, three weeks or three years–it doesn’t matter.” Frank Curiel is no less committed to his position. “We’ll be there in their face until we win.”

From her home in Birmingham, Alabama, Alissa Mathison traveled to Quincy, Florida, to support the United Farm Workers’ boycott of Prime mushrooms. Barry Lee is a graduate student in history at Georgia State University in Atlanta.