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The Los Angeles TImes, Ventura County Edition

Sunday September 2, 2001

By Timothy Hughes, Times Staff Writer


Demanding a contract and better treatment of laborers at Pictsweet Mushroom Farm, a boisterous group of farm workers, union leaders and political activists marched across Ventura on Saturday from a high school to a park near the embattled farm's headquarters on Gonzales Road.

The marchers--carrying handmade signs and red United Farm Workers flags with black eagle insignias--stopped traffic on several busy streets.

"This is a difficult job and they don't treat us right," said Jose Garcia, 45, a picker at the farm for 28 years. "I see the injustices and I am trying to help." During the four-mile walk, UFW officials urged the 500-plus marchers to continue a boycott of Pictsweet products that has been in effect for more than a year.

The march was part of a renewed offensive by UFW, which has remained in a fight with the mushroom plant for more than a decade. Workers have gone without a contract since the company was sold to Tennessee-based United Foods Inc. in 1987.

Most of the 225 workers at the mushroom farm have families, and each makes between $18,000 and $22,000 a year, said UFW President Arturo Rodriguez. With the cost of housing in the county continuing to climb, the pay scale is far below the level needed to survive, he said.

"We're trying to give workers an opportunity to have a voice in their job," Rodriguez said.

Rodriguez and other union representatives said they want the mushroom company to provide dental and vision plans, cheaper medical insurance and a pension plan. They also called on the company to boost wages by 5% for hourly employees or 5 cents per bucket of vegetables for those paid by the amount they pick. Those workers currently earn 47 cents a bucket.

Pictsweet Mushroom Farm officials were unavailable for comment Saturday. However, they have recently said that workers already receive wages and benefits comparable to those paid at other mushroom farms.

And farm officials have also noted that workers receive three weeks' paid vacation annually, raises every two years and automatic enrollment in the company's profit-sharing plan.

Many of the marchers said their grievances go deeper than the squabble over the company's benefits package.

Jose Luis Luna said he realized a long time ago that he would never get rich picking mushrooms. But he likes farm work and is just looking for a contract to get guarantees for his family.

"We have tried to talk to management about this in the past," said Luna, 46, a Pictsweet employee for 20 years. "Now it's time for us to take control of our lives."

Marchers started at Pacific High School on College Drive, went south to Main Street and then down Telephone Road to Gonzales Road, just outside Ventura's city limits near the farm.

Several marchers wore buttons with pictures of legendary UFW President Cesar Chavez. Others laughed and waved at honking cars while chanting "Yes we can."

Representatives from more than a dozen union locals in Ventura and Los Angeles counties took part in the protest, as did members of the Green and Communist parties. Actor Martin Sheen was scheduled to attend but canceled due to an illness in the family.

Fellow actor and activist Mike Farrell, who became famous as Alan Alda's sidekick B.J. in the hit television series "M*A*S*H," participated in the walk, which ended at the Olivas Adobe Historical Park and included speeches and a performance by a mariachi band.

"Here we are in the second year of a new millennium and we are still talking about basic human rights," Farrell said. "Justice is on the side of the workers. Pictsweet needs to negotiate."