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Cali's wage shame

Published:  18 January, 2007

There's a dirty little secret in California's glamorous wine country. At a time when dozens of California wines are selling for more than $100 a bottle, when producers are building multimillion-dollar monuments to their own egos and to impress wine nerds who run up thousand-dollar wine bills at a dinner for four, California farm unions are in danger of losing the battle that would give vineyard workers a decent living wage. (Vineyard workers and grunt labour in California wineries are virtually all Hispanic.)

The United Farm Workers union (UFW), created in the 1960s by Caesar Chavez, has managed to get union contracts for only about 10,000 of the 400,000 farm workers in California. The percentages for wineries are even more dismal. The UFW recently won a contract at Charles Krug in Napa but were kicked out of Sonoma-Cutrer in Sonoma. The union is currently struggling to stay at Gallo of Sonoma, where workers voted to join the union more than 10 years ago. It took six years to get a contract, and that expired a year ago with no new contract in sight. In fact, the UFW is appealing a desertification vote that they claim was corrupted by Gallo.

Workers at Gallo Sonoma and other North Coast wineries are paid as little as

$8 an hour. One Gallo worker told a local reporter he makes $8.10 an hour, with some healthcare benefits; after deductions, he will be taking home in the neighbourhood

of $15,000 a year. That's a lousy neighbourhood if you're living in high-budget California.

I don't mean to put the heat on Gallo - workers there say they are treated fine, compared to other wineries - it's just that Gallo is very visible and could be a trendsetter for other producers, as well as buffing up California's image in the global wine market.

Philip Martin is a professor at University of California at Davis and the author of Promise Unfulfilled, a book about agricultural labour relations.

He questions why the UFW has not made more advances. Napa and Sonoma are really agritourism. People pay to come there and they often buy the product there. In theory, UFW should have a lot of clout,' he said in a recent interview in the San Francisco Chronicle. I think the mystery has always been why it hasn't been more successful.'

There is a number of things working against the union, according to California labour analysts, including the rise in undocumented workers that gives the employers the opportunity to hire from a pool of cheap labour willing to work for less than union rates.

On the plus side, a group of wineries in Napa County has joined with the county to provide subsidised housing for workers, which is a good thing, as well as good public relations. But an even better thing would be to pay the workers a living salary so they could afford housing of their own choice.

There are dishwashers in San Francisco restaurants who are paid more than $8.10 an hour, and they don't work eight hours a day in the hot sun.

It's time that the very image-aware wineries of California paid more than lip service to the workers who keep the industry growing.

Over here in the former colony, we have a November holiday called Thanksgiving. The Disney-like spin on the holiday is that the Pilgrims - an early band of illegal immigrants if ever there was one - invited local Indians for a feast to celebrate staying alive for a year at the Plymouth Rock colony. The Indians were invited because they had helped the Pilgrims with gifts

of food during the first harsh winter. Well, we know what happened to those Indians

Just in time for the holiday, a band of Pomo Indians in Sonoma County is claiming that an ancient Pomo village site has been destroyed by Peter Michael winery. Earlier, the winery was given a slap-on-the-wrist fine of $17,500 by California's Department of Forestry for removing several acres of forest without a permit and, in the process, bulldozing the village.

A spokesperson for the winery claims they didn't know they needed a permit - did anyone ask? - and the Pomo village was really somewhere else, even though a large number of Pomo pre-Columbian artefacts were unearthed by the bulldozer - not usually the best tool for excavating archaeological sites.

The Pomos said the village was the cultural and spiritual centre for a number of villages and that it contained a sacred roundhouse. The Pomos have asked the winery for the return of the unearthed artefacts. At this point, the winery said they will do that - once the items are identified and catalogued.

The winery intends to plant Pinot Noir on the site. Pinot

is often characterised as the perfect wine for Thanksgiving turkey.