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Negotiating A Union Contract

Negotiating A Union Contract at Swanton Berry Farm

Jim Cochran of Swanton Berry Farm was the first organically certified strawberry grower in California, and he has always been interested in using his farm to further social justice. In 1998, Swanton Berry Farm negotiated a contract with its workers as they organized a union with the United Farm Workers. In a long interview shared as part of UC Santa Cruz’s regional history collection (also included in abridged form in the book Cultivating a Movement) Cochran shared these reflections on the unionization process:

Well, I thought, gee, if we can do [certification] with fertilizer and plants and soil, why can’t we do that with people? There wasn’t much interest in that in the organic community in certifying labor standards. So I thought, maybe the thing to do is to become involved with the UFW [United Farm Workers], which has, of course, had a long history of working for farm worker rights.

So we got together in early in ’98 and negotiated a contract. It was a complex process with all sorts of things in there that I’d never thought of, but it was an excellent learning process for me. I mean, a grievance. I’d heard of a grievance, but it never occurred to me that there should be something formal, written: how do you handle something like this, and how do you handle seniority, and how do you handle these kinds of things? It was all very informal before. I thought, well, you know, this is good. It’s sort of like getting beyond, in organic farming, the point where somebody just says, “Oh [snaps fingers], that’s organic” and waves their hand and says, “Oh, you know.” It needs to be more formal, really, especially when you get to a certain size. And that’s the way I felt about labor issues. It was an issue that was not being addressed in any formal way by the other farms, and I felt like it was really important to do that.

We’ve now had a contract for eight years. So we have processes for all these things. An employee has a problem with something, they talk to so-and-so and so-and-so, we have a little meeting, and we resolve it this way. And there’s a process for that; there’s a process for talking about wages, and we have a health and dental plan, and we have vacation pay, and we have holiday pay and a pension plan.

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Transcript excerpt:

I feel that the union contract is a really important part of our operation. We signed a contract with the United Farm Workers, gosh, I don’t know, 10 or 11 years ago or something. And the process of generating a contract is a process of discussion and negotiation, and it’s a really good process because people sit down—workers and management—sit down and discuss in detail all sorts of issues that are generally not dealt with systematically, especially in a farming business, generally not dealt with systematically in any kind of business.

…It’s really pretty amazing how detailed [the contract] is. It really is almost like having an HR department. I don’t know how to explain it exactly, other than to say that it systematizes things in a way and formalizes things in a very positive way, I believe, so that the owner can’t be capricious about things. And then of course the employees, by participating in the process, really feel some ownership in the process themselves. So that’s been a process that’s been very good for us over the last 10 years. I feel like it’s an important part of what we offer as a company, is the culture of inclusion and decision-making, and furthermore the sense that the employees have that, that if they have issues that they will get dealt with in some formal way.