The United Farm Workers union called Tuesday for a worldwide boycott of E&J Gallo Winery, bringing a strategy it used 30 years ago against grapes grown in the Central Valley to premium wines made today in Sonoma County.
The appeal came 19 months after the UFW contract covering Gallo of Sonoma's 300 field workers expired and after negotiations produced bitter recriminations between the nation's leading farmworkers' union and the world's second-largest wine company.
Invoking the memory of UFW founder Cesar Chavez, union President Arturo Rodriguez rallied supporters in San Francisco on Tuesday to switch to other wine brands.
"Together we will convince America's wealthiest wine-making family to stop exploiting and mistreating all of its vineyard workers in Sonoma County," Rodriguez told about 350 supporters on the steps of City Hall.
Gallo spokesman John Segale denounced the call for a boycott, saying the UFW has ignored six requests from Gallo to return to the bargaining table since negotiations broke off in September.
"The only reason there's no new contract with the UFW is they walked away from the bargaining table," Segale said. "We want a new contract, and the workers deserve a new contract."
Gallo of Sonoma is the fifth-largest winery in Sonoma County, with estimated county revenue of $135 million last year. Its contract with the UFW is considered an indicator of the potential for union organizing in the vineyards.
While the UFW's use of the boycott is not new, Rodriguez plans to apply new tactics by using the Internet to appeal to labor, Democratic Party, religious, environmental and other supporters.
Whether the UFW can attract upscale wine drinkers outside of Sonoma County to its cause is an open question.
"We know the demographics of wine drinkers. They're older and more affluent" and probably more conservative, said Steven Cuellar, professor of economics at Sonoma State University and an expert in labor economics and public policy. "I just don't know if that's their group."
The UFW's call for a boycott is the latest in more than 30 years of acrimony between the union and Gallo.
The most recent chapter began with the expiration in November 2003 of a three-year contract that covered Gallo of Sonoma's 85 local workers and the 145 to 220 workers it hires nearly year-around through Central Valley labor contractors. Gallo is based in Modesto.
Gallo's negotiating team, led by Matt Gallo who heads E&J Gallo's North Coast operations, says an agreement is possible if the UFW would return to the table.
Another negotiating session is set for Tuesday. UFW officials said they plan to attend but noted so little progress has been made, even with the help of mediators, that it's time to take a different approach.
"The company has left us no other option but to boycott Gallo," farmworker Antonio Campa, 50, of Santa Rosa, a 26-year Gallo employee, said at the Tuesday rally. "They have denied our modest demands for benefits, just working conditions and a just contract."
UFW boycotts have had mixed success. The 1973 boycott against Gallo and other grape growers gained international attention and millions of supporters and led to legislation that made California the first state to guarantee farmworkers the right to organize.
But the latest boycott lasted 16 years without notable results, and Rodriguez called it off in 2000 to concentrate on other efforts.