Calif. vineyard workers fight back after firings

Vineyard workers and their union, the United Farm Workers, are upping the ante in their months-long struggle for a new contract with Northern California’s Charles Krug winery.

The winery fired all 36 workers July 7, saying it would contract out their work to a land manager. The firings took place just hours after the state Agricultural Labor Relations Board said it would issue a complaint against the company for unfair labor practices, based on Krug’s failure to negotiate a new contract in good faith.

Saying the labor board’s action was “tantamount to an indictment” of the winery, Marc Grossman, the UFW’s communications director, said in a phone interview that the union has added the illegal terminations to the list of charges against the company. The UFW believes the board will include the issue in a consolidated complaint. The matter will then go before an administrative law judge.

The vineyard workers’ contract expired last Dec. 31. On June 15, the union launched a nationwide boycott of the winery’s Charles Krug and C.K. Mondavi labels. Among early endorsers of the boycott was the Change to Win labor federation, to which the UFW belongs.

Grossman said that besides the union’s legal battle, information and appeals to join the boycott are being circulated on the Internet, while vigils and marches continue at the winery in the Napa County community of St. Helena.

“We hope the combination of legal struggle and the growing boycott will make the company change its mind,” he said, noting that the winery’s reputation would not benefit from being associated with the firing of workers while it is in the midst of a major vineyard upgrade.

The union is talking with major distributors about the boycott, Grossman said. The UFW also plans to appeal to supermarkets and retailers, and will focus on wine-tasting and promotional events featuring Krug-Mondavi wines.

Hundreds of thousands of people joined last year’s boycott of E&J Gallo wines, which led to the signing of a new contract, Grossman said.

The UFW’s web site, www.ufw.org, features a message that can be sent to the winery and circulated to other potential signers.

In 1975, vineyard workers at Charles Krug were among the first in the state to win union representation under California’s newly passed farm labor law, but they were not able to sign a first contract until 1981. The winery, owned by the Peter Mondavi family, is the 15th largest in the country. Founded in 1861, it is Napa County’s oldest major winery.

The UFW seeks wage hikes of 3 percent per year and modest increases in health benefits, while the winery is pressing for mandatory physical exams of all workers and the ability to terminate workers based on the results. A number of the workers have been with the company for many years, and the union says the exams could be used to get rid of older workers.