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.
Saqui encouraged vineyard managers to train supervisors and provide a handbook that deals with issues like sexual harassment and heat illness, and to talk regularly with field workers to suss out any issues.
"It's going to be over 100 (degrees) this weekend," Saqui said. "Are you ready? OSHA is. They're already here. They'll wine taste today, but tomorrow they should be ready."
Meanwhile, growers that rely on immigrant workers are facing a shrinking workforce, said Monte Lake, attorney with CJ Lake based in Washington, D.C. That workforce will get even smaller when E-Verify, the system that allows employers to check the working status of employees, eventually becomes mandatory, he predicted.
"About 70 percent of your applicants are going to be excluded because of E-Verify," Lake said. "In the past we had a shortage of legal workers. Now we're seeing a shortage of bodies ... the immigrants are not coming anymore because of the army and fences we have at the border."
In a 2012 survey, 80 percent of raisin and berry growers were unable to find an adequate number of employees, demonstrating the need for immigration reform, Lake said. In the dairy industry, three out of five workers are undocumented, making the industry a target for Immigration and Customs Enforcement.
"They're sitting ducks," Lake said.