Is Mushroom Strike A Look At Labor's New Face?

On a routine day, the workers on the morning shift for Kaolin Mushroom Farms in southern Chester County, Pa., near Philadelphia, are inside the dank, low-slung sheds by 5 a.m., picking mushrooms.

There, they bend and stretch, fingers and knives flying in a well-practiced frenzy over the broad beds, harvesting the white nubs from the compost.

But April 1 was no routine day outside the Kaolin company gates.

On that morning, 140 workers - all Hispanic - gathered in a park near the mushroom plant and glanced around in some confusion. They seemed surprised at their own boldness.

They were on strike.

The Mexican consul of Philadelphia attempted to mediate. Even a former Mexican presidential candidate trooped into the Kaolin company offices, urging negotiation with the strikers.

Suddenly, what started as a simple protest for union recognition had become much more.

The strike - played out against the backdrop of a proposed North American free-trade pact and pending state and federal legislation to increase farm workers' rights - may have wide-reaching implications, not only for the state's $256-million-a-year mushroom industry, but also for labor as a whole.

"It's possible," said Pennsylvania State University labor professor Tom Juravich, "that this little strike could take on a much larger life than one might expect."

How did it ever come to this?

Kaolin owner Michael Pia blames one man, Ventura Gutierrez, an

experienced farm-labor organizer from California who came here at the invitation of the Farmworkers Support Committee in New Jersey.


"The gentleman (Gutierrez) shows up on my doorstep one day, and tells my people that I cut their wages," Pia said. "He fills their heads with erroneous ideas."

Gutierrez sees it differently.

"The attitude of the owner toward the workers is to see them like machine parts, not as human beings, not as equals," he said. "But they are going to return to work as human beings with pride and dignity. What's important isn't that they earn $6 or $7 an hour, but that they have rights, and that they are respected."

Pia and the 100 or so area mushroom-farm owners see themselves as providing better jobs and pay than the workers could get in Mexico.

Pia's company offers workers up to 12 weeks' annual leave and one week paid vacation after one year. Just before the walkout, it added increased holiday pay and a cafeteria-style medical plan.

Still, mushroom harvesting is a grueling job where on a good day a Kaolin worker can earn $55 for picking 500 pounds - for pickers, there are no hourly wages, just $1.10 per 10-pound box. Many of the workers live in overcrowded trailers and apartments, some with no running water. They are isolated by poverty and language.

There have been several other walkouts in the recent past. But they were short-lived protests of one or two days that attracted little attention.

This time things are different.

To begin with, there's the growing impact of the Immigration Reform and Control Act of 1986, which gave legal residence in the United States to some foreign nationals.

Many Mexicans took advantage of it, setting down roots in Chester County, moving their families here and trying to build a community.


They have gone from being an invisible presence of single men to a visible population in supermarkets, schools and churches.

Another factor is the North American Free Trade Agreement, a proposal to unify the markets of Canada, Mexico and the United States.

Gutierrez, a founder of the Texas-based Organizing Project Without Borders, said companies had gone multinational, and so should unions.

Most of the Kaolin workers come from two states in Mexico in which he is also organizing.

And then there's a proposal to increase farm-worker protections through amendments introduced by Rep. Mark Cohen, D-Philadelphia, to a 1978 Pennsylvania law.

"If these amendments pass, workers such as the Kaolin workers would have substantive rights to overtime, wages, working conditions and unemployment. . . . Laws don't mean anything without vigorous, sustained advocacy, and a union would greatly increase the chances of that," Cohen said.

These conditions are coming together at a time when mushroom prices are falling. Although they remain Pennsylvania's top cash crop, their market value has fallen - from 77 cents per pound in 1989-90 to 73 cents per pound in 1991-92. Pia said he felt squeezed financially.

"I'm not crying poor," Pia said, "but certainly the industry has seen better days." Even at that, he said, his salaries are in the top 5 percent of the industry.

Although the job action is restricted to Kaolin, a successful boycott could affect all the growers in the area, which employ as many as 6,000 workers.

However Kaolin continues to operate by hiring some local workers and bringing in Asians from North Philadelphia. The mostly Cambodian and Vietnamese replacement workers are bused in by day-labor contractors.

Pia said 30 striking workers had returned to their jobs, although Gutierrez disputed that. With replacement workers, the plant is up to full capacity, Pia said.

Chester County Judge Jacqueline Carroll restricted the picket line and barred strikers from company property. After strikers rushed the main gate at Kaolin, Carroll further limited the picketing, and prohibited Gutierrez from walking on the road or stopping in front of the plant.

Aside from the court battles, Gutierrez is going about his organization drive in a somewhat unusual fashion: The workers went on strike before they voted to join a union.

By walking out, the strikers leapfrogged the standard process, wherein workers first seek official recognition via the Pennsylvania Labor Relations Board.

(Agricultural workers are not covered by the National Labor Relations Board.)

The company "wants us to get official union certification" before they will recognize it, Gutierrez said. "Nobody has the right to say who represents us."

In the farm industry, "because there are so few protections under the law, they move quickly to alternative tactics," said Penn State's Juravich, who has testified on behalf of mushroom workers before the state labor relations board.

He added that farm workers had been at the bottom of American labor's "caste system" since 1938, when farmhands were exempted from the minimum-wage and overtime protections in the federal Fair Labor Standards Act.

Meanwhile, supporters of the dissident mushroom workers among organized labor are beginning to see immigrant workers as the new face of organizing in the '90s.

"In the 1930s and 1940s, you'd call a union boycott and people would just join in. But not anymore," said Jack Getman, professor of labor law at the University of Texas. The tactics he sees the unions moving toward are "to get the public to see the union not as a bunch of overpaid white guys with bellies, but as struggling workers.