Winegrowers facing labor hurdles as harvest season approaches

Grape growers and farmers throughout the state are facing a range of challenges finding and holding on to laborers as they head into harvest.

State enforcement agencies are cracking down on wage and labor violations, labor groups and activists are targeting farm companies with negative campaigns, and fewer workers are crossing the border from Mexico, grape growers were told Friday at the annual trade show held by Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Unions have been emboldened by recent changes to the California Agricultural Labor Relations Act, said Michael Saqui, attorney with Saqui Law Group, based in Roseville and Salinas.

In some cases, union organizers have taken to social media channels to create boycott campaigns against farm employers before the companies were served with complaint papers.

"The social justice network — Twitter, Facebook, periodicals that go out over the Internet — now are the fastest way to boycott a product that we've ever seen, and they're successfully using it," Saqui said.

In one case, a tomato grower represented by Saqui did not know it had been hit with a labor relations complaint until the retailer that sold its tomatoes was targeted in a social media campaign, Saqui said.

"We had no idea that they had filed unfair labor practices against us, because we had not been served with them," Saqui said.

"They're going straight to our retailers who are just absolutely scared of any social justice, worker exploitation, anything that can cloak them in abusing or exploiting farm workers," Saqui said. "True or not, it's irrelevant to a CEO that's getting Twitter feeds and social media feeds that could damage his brand because of a tomato that goes on his sandwich."

Those campaigns could eventually be directed at wineries, Saqui said. Unions have tried to stop farmers' conversion to mechanization in other regions, he said, and they could do so in the vineyards.

"You think we've got a boycottable product in wine? Yeah, we've got a boycottable product," Saqui said.

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