Food Industry Giant's Walmart-Style Labor Practices Leave Bad Taste in Mouth

When you hear about poverty wages and extreme anti-union tactics practiced by the largest company of its kind in the world, it's natural to think of Walmart. But California-based Taylor Farms is giving the retail giant a run for its money.
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When you hear about poverty wages and extreme anti-union tactics practiced by the largest company of its kind in the world, it's natural to think of Walmart. But California-based Taylor Farms is giving the retail giant a run for its money when it comes to low-road labor practices, while offering another example of why it's time for the U.S. to clamp down on the use of temp agencies by huge companies trying to evade responsibility for unconscionable working conditions.

Taylor Farms is the world's largest producer of fresh-cut vegetables, and supplies some of the nation's biggest fast food and grocery chains including McDonald's, Subway, Pizza Hut, Safeway, Ralph's and Kroger. They operate in nine states as well as Mexico, and earned revenues of $1.8 billion in 2012.

A visit to the company website offers a bucolic image of a multigenerational family-run business with the highest ethical standards. Contrast this with Taylor Farms' numerous health and safety law penalties and the alleged widespread intimidation, harassment and firing of workers seeking union representation at the company's plants in the Central Valley town of Tracy -- described by veteran labor leaders as the most brutal anti-union campaign they have ever seen. These tactics apparently reached their peak in late March as workers were voting whether to be represented by the Teamsters, leading the National Labor Relations Board to take the rare step of impounding the ballots.

According to a Teamster report, Taylor Farms "deployed a goon squad of supervisors and lead workers to intimidate workers and restrict their movement during the voting period. The company stationed armed guards in full view of workers who were voting and called police who parked their squad cars in front of the facilities, adding to the climate of fear during the election. Meanwhile, company goons spat on union t-shirts, yelling obscenities and threats at union organizers and workers."

While extreme, the company's alleged conduct during the union election came as little surprise to those involved in the six-month organizing effort that preceded the vote. Charges filed with the NLRB accused the company -- and the employment agencies that provide much of the workforce for Taylor Farms' Tracy plants - of a litany of abuses. These include allegations that 10 workers were fired for engaging in union activities and that one was physically assaulted, as well as alleged surveillance, reduction of hours, wage theft, threatening immigrant workers with deportation, illegal suspensions, ethnic discrimination against Mexican Americans, sexual harassment, refusal to permit workers to go to the bathroom when requested, termination of workers who raise concern about safety matters, bullying of union supporters and threats to family members of pro-union workers. Nor was Taylor Farms' alleged behavior inconsistent with what labor leaders say is a long track record of everything from poverty wages to hazardous working conditions to the firing of injured workers.

Anti-union campaigns by low-road employers are hardly news in the U.S., where weak labor laws and the immense economic power wielded by large corporations has conspired to create a singularly adverse environment for union organizing. But several factors make Taylor Farms' aggressive attack on workers rights an example that deserves close scrutiny.

The company's market dominance, of course, invites attention, as does company CEO's Bruce Taylor's high profile as head of powerful industry groups like the Western Growers Association and former chair of the Produce Marketing Association as well as past chairman of the National Steinbeck Center (the irony of this latter post surely would not be lost on the center's namesake).

Even more relevant, though, is Taylor Farms' use of employment agencies to meet its staffing needs. Two-thirds of the workers at the company's plants in Tracy are hired by Abel Mendoza and SlingShot, effectively shielding Taylor Farms from responsibility for how these workers are treated. Many of the workers at the Tracy plants have been there for years, yet because they were hired by "temp" agenices they are denied basic rights and protections including sick leave and workers compensation.

The use of such contracting schemes has become so rampant that Assemblymember Roger Hernandez has introduced legislation that would hold companies like Taylor Farms accountable for wage theft and other abuses when they use staffing agencies and other labor contractors to supply workers. Predictably, AB1897 has come under fierce attack from the California Chamber of Commerce and the Taylor-headed Western Growers Association, along with dozens of corporations and business groups who have a vested interest in maintaining the status quo.

The outcome of the fight over AB1897, and the organizing effort at Taylor Farms, may be important bellwethers for the fortunes of America's growing army of perma-temp workers. In an era of record income inequality, the fate of these workers will either begin to close the huge divide between rich and poor or drive us further toward the cliff of wealth stratification.

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