No joy in nutville
Tensions rise as Blue Diamond almond workers attempt to unionize Sacramento’s largest food-industry employer.
Like many of his peers who work at Blue Diamond Growers (BDG), Gene Esparza has worked there for so long that he can recount just about everything that’s happened at the facility, present and past. With 35 years on the job and now working as a forklift driver making $13 an hour, he remembers when the company, now employing 720, boasted a work force in excess of 3,000. He remembers old supervisors, retired co-workers, and the arsenal of war stories that comes along with a life of blue-collar work. But the one thing he’s unable to recall is his last pay raise.“Geez, I can’t remember that,” he said. Gene turns to confer with his wife, Petra, who has worked at the company for 29 years. After a rehash of hazy numbers and dates, they estimate his last pay hike was back in the early 1990s; in a tenure that dates back to when Nixon was in office, he’s gotten two raises. Petra, who works over in quality control inspecting almonds, makes $12.75 an hour.
Along with a half-dozen other employees contacted by SN&R, the Esparzas tell a tale of tensions between workers and management that reached a breaking point on April 15, when 58 employees signed a letter declaring their intent to unionize, backed by the International Longshore and Warehouse Union Local 17 in West Sacramento.
Workers contacted for this story said there was no other option but to try to unionize because many employees, particularly those who have worked 20-or-more years, feel they have nothing to lose. The plant employs some 200 seasonal workers, mostly women, who are laid off during slow times, typically during summer off-season and slowdowns in the August-to-May cycle.
“Morale is so low. People are really upset, [prices] are going up. The ladies I see getting laid off, they are crying,” Petra said. “A lot of ladies that work for Blue Diamond are self-supporting, and they’re barely making it.”
Alma Orozco, a 29-year employee making $10.75 an hour, works about three-quarters of a calendar year as a sorter on the processing line, and said last year she was laid off two days shy of becoming eligible for vacation.
“Management changes rules whenever they want to. Seniority doesn’t mean nothing there. Jobs go to whoever they feel like it, (as do) our pay raises, and benefits, I don’t believe we’ve had a raise in five years,” she said. “And it was like a quarter.”
Petra recalls it as a 23-cent hike, which came down at the same time the rate for the pay phone in the break room went up a quarter.
“We just laughed about it,” she said. “We just got enough money to pay a telephone.”
With its headquarters at 18th and C streets, BDG is the world’s largest almond-processing plant, shipping an estimated 350 million pounds last year. It was founded in 1910 and established itself here in Sacramento in 1914, becoming one of the city’s biggest employers. In 1995, with a $32 million dollar payroll and more than 1,000 jobs, the company was courted with incentive-laden relocation offers from Fresno and Turlock, prompting a heated battle in the Sacramento city council over whether or not keeping BDG here was a viable cause. Eventually, the city approved a $21 million dollar funding package from local, regional, state and utility agencies. In return, BDG agreed to spend some $30 million to modernize facilities and to remain a SMUD customer through 2010. Since that agreement, business has boomed for BDG, a cooperative of 3,800 almond growers in the state who produce about one-third of California’s crop (the state’s almond output constitutes 90 percent of the world’s annual supply). From 1999 to 2003, each year set a company record for product shipped. According to the company Web site, www.bluediamond.com, business is better than ever. Production and prices are at all-time highs to meet growing global demand for the almond industry’s best-recognized brand.
BDG declined comment on the issues raised in this story, instead forwarding a boilerplate press statement regarding the company’s history. “We have a base of very loyal employees,” the statement concluded, “and we’re proud of that!” Susan Brauner, the company’s director of public affairs, did not respond to further requests for an interview.
But while the numbers touted on the company Web site are brimming with optimism, workers aren’t. Union supporters began meeting last September, recruiting co-workers, and wearing yellow pro-union T-shirts under their work clothes on Fridays to show solidarity. On April 15, the day workers submitted the letter declaring their intent to organize, they also held a rally outside the facility. Assemblyman Dave Jones couldn’t make it due to scheduling conflicts, but he dispatched a representative from his office. ILWU organizer Agustin Ramirez said he plans to meet with “every elected official” in Sacramento in the coming weeks.
During a strategy meeting April 20 at ILWU headquarters in West Sacramento, Ramirez heard the latest reports of what he characterizes as anti-union tactics by the company, and produced flyers that 20 employees in attendance said have been distributed by management—he dismisses them as scare tactics. The flyers encourage workers to “not sign anything” and to avoid contact with union organizers who may trick them into joining.
Ramirez warned workers not to give management cause for dismissal. “We have to be very careful,” he told the assembled workers, more than half of whom said they’ve worked at the company 20 years or more. “Show up on time. Don’t be late.” Despite this, talk turned to a co-worker who was terminated that week after 38 years on the job. Like those at the meeting, he was part of the April 15 rally and didn’t hide his desire to unionize, they say.
“It seems the longer you are here, the worse they treat you,” said 19-year-employee Larry Newsome, a vacuum-filler attendant.
Several workers at the meeting said management has taken them and co-workers aside in small groups, asking about union activities and where they stand. They also claimed management was telling workers that, if a union came to the plant, non-union supporters would be fired and workers might lose their pensions. Ramirez said those allegations are a clear violation of labor law, which precludes companies from making such claims.
Ramirez hopes to recruit enough supporters for a vote in early June. At that time, if a majority of non-management employees support filing for unionization, a worker vote deciding the matter could be forced as early as next fall, in the peak of the processing season. If that election succeeds, the company would have to either negotiate a labor contract with workers, or file an appeal through various means that could take months, said Ramirez.
With 58 currently active supporters, Ramirez believes he’ll need about 350 votes for the move to succeed. In 1990, the ILWU tried to unionize the plant, but ushered in the election without garnering enough support beforehand—it failed by a 2-1 margin. Since then, he said that other labor unions have steered clear of trying to unionize there, and some have warned the ILWU that unionizing the plant is a lost cause.
“They say these workers will be intimidated by their employers,” Ramirez said. “I think we’re doing it smarter this time. But I make them no promises.”
Gene Esparza, a 55-year-old Sacramento native, grew up picking crops with his parents in the area. He joined the company for $2.25 an hour, and says it was “just like a big family” until the mid-1980s. Asked why he hasn’t applied for another job, he says he doesn’t want to leave with a bad taste in his mouth. Petra digs out his weekly paycheck: With a $520 gross, he nets $288 after taxes and health-care premiums take their respective bites.
“I know I can get something else. But I want to make it better for everybody. Where I can tell my kid, go apply over there,” said Esparza, a father of six. “Right now I’m so embarrassed to say I work there. We work hard, and we put our time in and sweat and blood. I want to see this through.”