Rancho Laguna Farms workers allegedly faced retaliation for striking

As the work day nears an end on May 28, a small gathering arrives at Driscoll’s Santa Maria office. The company’s large green cursive logo—“Driscoll’s: Only the Finest Berries”—glistens in the late afternoon sun. Mask-clad community members stand below it, and a man named José Luis Ramírez Carrera clutches a manila envelope. Inside is a petition with the signatures of more than 75 Rancho Laguna Farms workers, including his own. 

click to enlarge Rancho Laguna Farms workers allegedly faced retaliation for striking
PETITION FOR PROTECTION: José Luis Ramírez Carrera, a farmworker who was employed by Rancho Laguna Farms, is pictured here in the center with a blue shirt and mask on. He and other workers attempted to deliver a petition with more than 75 signatures to Driscoll’s on May 28, but the company did not accept it in person.

The petition that Carrera and his fellow workers organized and signed demands that Driscoll’s takes responsibility for unsafe working conditions they say they experienced while working at Rancho Laguna Farms LLC, a direct supplier to Driscoll’s with farms in the Santa Maria Valley.

Shared with the Sun by the Central Coast Alliance United for a Sustainable Economy (CAUSE), a local organization that’s supporting the workers’ demands, the petition alleges that Rancho Laguna is covering up COVID-19 cases among staff and has unfairly retaliated against workers who raised their voices. The petition’s demands include a long-term salary increase of $0.25 per box of strawberries picked, safe conditions, and respect without retaliation.

What happened on May 28 followed strikes on May 4 and 5, which included more than 100 workers and, for some, allegedly resulted in unfair retaliation.

“This really was brought to my attention by the Mexican consulate in Oxnard, because someone who was part of the first strike called the consulate,” said CAUSE organizer Zulema Aleman. “They were scared that people were going to get in trouble.” 

Aleman said that someone from Rancho Laguna Farms called the Santa Barbara County Sheriff’s Office on the workers for striking on May 4 and 5. The consulate also told CAUSE that someone allegedly threatened to call Immigration and Customs Enforcement (ICE)

Aleman and her organization stepped in to give the workers guidance and support. On May 11, CAUSE filed an unfair labor practice charge with the California Agricultural Labor Relations Board (ALRB) on behalf of the workers.

“The allegation was that some people’s employment was terminated, there was a threat to call immigration officials, they called law enforcement out in the fields, and changed their work assignments,” ALRB General Counsel Julia Montgomery said. “We’re still investigating it.”

Montgomery said that workers have the legal right to engage in a strike—a protected activity—without being retaliated against. If the ALRB finds evidence of the workers’ allegations, she said, they would seek either an informal resolution or reinforce the law in court.

Rancho Laguna Farms owner Larry Ferini wrote an emailed statement to Sun in a response to a request for comment. 

“There is a process in place with the ALRB to determine the merits of charges that are filed, and we intend to fully cooperate with that process,” he wrote. “It would not be appropriate to comment on an ongoing investigation, and [we] will not do so at this time.”

A Driscoll’s spokesperson also emailed a statement in response to a request for comment. 

“This complaint is directly related to a wage dispute, and Driscoll’s does not have a role or legal standing in this process,” the spokesperson stated. “We fully support this process and await a fair resolution for everyone involved.”

A worker’s perspective

One Rancho Laguna farmworker involved with the strikes spoke with the Sun and asked to remain anonymous out of fear of retaliation. CAUSE organizer Aleman provided the translation from Spanish to English, so the following account is paraphrased to avoid direct misquotations.

After workers’ demands were not met from the May 4 and 5 strikes, workers started considering another action, the worker said. Over Memorial Day weekend, they received a $.10 per box raise, which was among their initial demands. However, the anonymous worker said they believe a per-box raise isn’t enough.

Depending on the time of year, workers either get paid by contract—per box of berries that they pick—or by hourly wage. Right now, workers are getting paid under contract, the worker stated. While they believe that the raise will be honored during this contract season, they said that they aren’t confident that it will remain in place next year because per-box wages often fluctuate. 

The worker also expressed concern over how Rancho Laguna Farms is handling COVID-19. They heard that two or three co-workers had the virus, as well as one foreman. They said their supervisors have not told them how to protect themselves from getting the virus. 

Aleman said that multiple workers reported that a foreman had COVID-19, was gone from work for a week, and then came back. Some workers, she said, “saw him still coughing, touching equipment.”

In Ferini’s statement to the Sun, he said, “The protocols we establish for COVID-19 prevention are consistent with CDC [Centers for Disease Control], Cal OSHA [Occupational Safety and Health Administration], and state and local health department guidelines.”

As workers await the results of the ALRB investigation, some are taking matters into their own hands. Carrera, the farmworker who attempted to deliver the petition to Driscoll’s on May 28, told CAUSE that he was fired after participating in the strikes earlier that month. He received his last paycheck, but he said it bounced when he tried to deposit it. Abraham Melendrez, a CAUSE community organizer, said Carrera hired a lawyer to bring his own case against Rancho Laguna.

After gathering more than 75 signatures of fellow workers, Carrera and others made the attempt to deliver the petition directly to Driscoll’s on May 28. Melendrez was present, capturing photos and taking videos of Carrera as he spoke about the demands. 

In one of the videos, a man in a yellow vest emerges from the office and tells the farmworkers and community members that they must leave. Carrera holds out the petition, and folks around him ask the man to take it, but the man refuses and goes back indoors. 

“Obviously some of the farmworkers were visibly upset,” Melendrez said the next day. “It’s a second kick while you’re down kind of thing. They were wondering how they were supposed to give the petition now. But we’re going to be mailing it and sending virtual copies as well. We’re also starting an online petition. … A lot of community members are stepping up.” 

Reach Staff Writer Malea Martin at [email protected]

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