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If It Smells Like Hell, It’s Probably Pictsweet by Mike Swaim

If It Smells Like Hell, It's Probably Pictsweet by Mike Swaim

Mike SwaimIf It Smells Like Hell, It’s Probably Pictsweet - The Mayor of Salem Speaks Out About Human Rights on the Home Front by Mike Swaim

For over twenty years I have driven by that foul smelling mushroom plant on the east side of Salem, thinking, “How can people stand to live near this putrid smelling place?” Never once did I ever stop to ask, “How can people stand to work behind those closed doors, which shut out the light, but not the smell?”

However, the most offensive smell emanating from that plant is not from the manure in which the mushrooms are grown, but rather from the abusive attitude and conditions under which the Pictsweet company forces their employees to work.

As Mayor of Salem, I was recently invited by some of the plant workers to speak with them about these conditions.

In doing so, I never imagined that I’d end up with the President of the Oregon State Senate publicly attacking me in the local press. Nor did I imagine I’d find myself nearly pinned to a padlocked chain link gate by a 16 wheeler semi, along with Cesar Chavez’s son-in-law, Arturo Rodriguez, 1,000 miles from City Hall.

It seemed like a fairly benign request when this all started. I got a telephone call from a man named “Javier,” who described himself as a recently fired Pictsweet mushroom plant worker. He wanted to bring some workers to meet with me, to tell me what’s going on inside the mushroom plant. I agreed to meet in my office at City Hall.

At the appointed day and hour, I greeted the delegation one-by-one as they entered the Mayor’s/City Manager’s offices. I shook each man’s hand as he entered the door, except for Enrique—he didn’t have a right hand, or much of a right arm, for that matter. He had recently lost both in a horrible accident at the mushroom plant. The awkwardness was fleeting, as I offered my left hand.

Through an interpreter, the men began to tell me what life is like working behind those closed doors, in near total darkness, in that hot and humid, putrid smelling plant, 10-12 hours a day, 6 days a week—all for minimum wage and no overtime pay. Some have been working there for over 20 years, and are still making only minimum wage. It was hard to believe.

Mushrooms are grown in the dark in a mixture of straw and the manure of several different species of animals. The workers wear a kind of miner’s hat with attached light to see. As batteries begin to fail, so does a worker’s eyesight over time.

For most of the growing cycle the temperature and humidity are kept hot high. Harvesting is done in a variety of squatting, leaning, and stretching positions, while using an extremely sharp knife. Accidents and injuries are common. So are respiratory infections.

There were stories of being scalded on hot unwrapped steam pipes; being scraped and gouged by exposed nails; slipping and falling on the slimy boards; burns caused by acid leaking from failing battery packs that energize the miner’s light.

Enrique lost his arm when a boss ordered an unqualified worker to operate a forklift. The untrained worker mistakenly put the powerful machine in forward, rather than reverse, irreversibly severing Enrique’s right arm just below the elbow.

However, the worst part of working there, I was told, was not the long hours, smell, horrible conditions, or low pay, but rather the disrespect shown to the workers, most of whom are Latino. “There’s this cartoon the bosses put on the wall,” they told me, “that shows a line of ants and a large boot about to step on any ant that gets out of line”.... “That’s what they tell us: Anyone who gets out of line will be smashed just like an ant.”

Javier, the acknowledged leader, offered his own personal story. Pictsweet had received an order for really small mushrooms, which are hard to pick and still make even minimum wage. He asked the bosses if the workers could possibly get one or two more cents per basket. He was told that he was a trouble maker, and that the other workers were OK with the regular rate. Javier went back and got several dozen fellow workers to join him, all of whom wanted to know whether they could get the cent or two increase. Javier was fired on the spot.

Javier took his case to the Bureau of Labor, which decided that he had been unfairly singled out for punishment, as only he was fired. Javier decided not to go back to Pictsweet; he now works for PCUN, the Latino farm and forest labor union which is attempting to organize the Pictsweet workers.

Having heard their stories, I thought there must be at least some violation of Oregon’s wage and hours laws. I soon learned that few of the laws apply to “agricultural workers,” and this mushroom factory is classified as an agricultural operation. So, requiring workers to work 60 - 70 hours a week at minimum wage, with no overtime pay, under those conditions is legal, even if inhumane. Apparently exploitation of one’s workers in ways which were made illegal nearly a century ago for all other workers in this country, is still OK for agricultural workers in the 21st century. A clear disgrace.

So, what did they want me to do? I don’t run the plant; it’s not even in the city limits. I have no legal authority to stop such practices, or improve their working conditions. “You’re our Mayor, too.” they pointed out. “Help us get the bosses to talk to us and, if they won’t, help us get the stores to stop buying Pictsweet mushrooms. The bosses refuse to talk to us, and Fred Meyer hasn’t returned our phone calls. Help us tell the people in Salem what is happening in that factory, and not to buy Pictsweet mushrooms.”

I was concerned that if they pursued that course of action, and people did stop buying Pictsweet mushrooms, the company would layoff the workers. In addition, it seemed to me that, given the company’s practice of firing those who speak up for themselves, these particular workers would be fired, just like Javier was, even if the boycott doesn’t work. “Won’t the bosses smash you like those ants?” I asked.

“Probably,” they said, but conditions had become so bad, and the attitude of the bosses so abusive, that they had decided it was time for all of them to stand up for themselves and speak out, even if it meant they’d all be fired.

I agreed to call the parent corporation’s CEO, Jim Tankersly, back in Bell, Tennessee, to see if I could get him or one of his top managers to sit down with their workers to discuss their working conditions. In addition, I invited several of the workers to be on my live monthly cable access program: “Who Cares?” to tell their stories to the public, themselves.

As we were breaking up that meeting, one of the men confided that they would be willing to suffer silently if only the bosses would treat them with a little respect and human dignity. The others murmured agreement. “How much could that cost a company”, I thought.

Just to be on the safe side, however, I went out and purchased four ski masks for my guests to wear on my show in order to protect their identities, in case they had changed their minds.

On show night about 20 workers showed up at the studio, each wanting to be on the show, even though I had told them the set was small and I could only seat four workers and their interpreter. When I showed them the ski masks and told them what they were for, they said it was good that I was trying to protect them, but they were serious about letting the bosses know who they were.

The floor director gave me the cue, and we were off! I had the workers tell their stories once again. The same bleak conditions and attitudes were retold, this time to a larger audience. They were deadly serious.

The hour passed quickly and, when the floor director gave the signal that we were off the air, the workers wanted to go on with their stories and those of their co-workers. We could have done at least two hours with these men.

A Corporation that Cares . . .and a Corporation that Could Care Less The next day, I tried to reach Jim Tankersly, the Pictsweet CEO, by telephone in Tennessee. I wanted to tell Tankersly what I had heard about his plant in Salem, and offer him or his designee an opportunity to come on the show and tell their side of the story. His secretary took my message and assured me that she would get it to him. No word. I tried again several days later; same message from the secretaries; no response from Tankersly. So, I decided to call the President of Fred Meyer Stores, Sam Duncan.

I didn’t get through to Duncan that first day, but I left the same message that I’d left for Tankersly: that I am the Mayor of Salem, and I am calling to talk about the Pictsweet mushroom plant in Salem.

Sam called the next day.

I introduced myself and ran down what was going on with the workers, and what I had done to date. To my surprise, Sam told me that he was familiar with Pictsweet and their attitude towards their workers, as he had been the President of Ralph’s Grocery Stores in California before coming to Fred Meyer. In fact, he had quit buying Pictsweet mushrooms in California precisely because of the way they treated their workers in their Ventura, California, plant.

Sam told me that he didn’t know that Fred Meyer was getting their mushrooms from Pictsweet; however, if the workers wanted Fred Meyer to boycott Pictsweet, he was prepared to do so. I told him that my purpose in calling was to see if I could set up a meeting between him and the workers, so that they could tell him firsthand what they were going through in Salem; however, I knew that what they really wanted was just what he was offering: for Fred Meyer to boycott Pictsweet mushrooms until management sat down with their workers to discuss these legitimate issues.

Sam told me that he would advise his buyers to immediately look for another supplier and, when found, Pictsweet would come off their shelves. I put in another call to Jim Tankersly, thinking that he might be more interested in talking to me, now that Fred Meyer had agreed to the boycott. I didn’t get through, again.

Word that Fred Meyer had decided to boycott Pictsweet mushrooms traveled fast, both in the industry and the media. Even Jim Tankersly finally returned my call. He allowed me to start the conversation. I gave him a thumbnail sketch of the issues, and asked if he’d be willing, either personally or through an authorized delegate, to meet with his workers. I thought it would be a powerful statement if he would do it, personally. It could change the whole tide of events.

He told me that, on advice of counsel, he would not speak with either me or his workers. I told him that, being a lawyer myself, I would not lightly advise him to disregard his attorney’s advice; however, I felt that if any progress were to be made, he and his company had to at least be willing to talk. He reaffirmed his initial statement in the very same words. It was clear; there would be no conversation.

Derfler Dissembles A few days later Gene Derfler, the term-limited President of the Oregon State Senate, published a letter to the editor in the local Statesman Journal newspaper. He’d spoken with Pictsweet management, he said, and then went on to criticize me for not calling the plant management or visiting the plant, before “telling them (Fred Meyer) not to purchase mushrooms from Pictsweet...,” as if anyone could “tell” Fred Meyer, a huge retailer in the northwest, what to do.

Obviously Pictsweet’s management was willing to talk to Derfler, a known foe of organized labor, but not to me or anyone else interested in the workers’ side of the issues. Clearly, Derfler, who had not discussed the issue with any of the workers, or even tried to do so, was using this as a political opportunity to suggest to the public that by jumping on the wrong side of the bandwagon I had forfeited my privilege of further elective office: “I have news for Mayor Swaim:” he warned. “If he continues to attempt to stop businesses from operating in Salem, his ability to continue spending taxpayer money will disappear.”

While I was stunned that Derfler would sink so low as to try to capitalize on the misery of these workers for political gain, it just made the workers mad.

They called a general meeting to discuss the boycott strategy. I decided to attend, if for no other reason than to get a feel for just how widespread the support for a boycott was amongst the rest of the workers. Although I had been told that the overwhelming majority of workers supported the boycott strategy, I wanted to see for myself if that was so.

The meeting was held on a Thursday evening at a church just up the street from the mushroom plant. Coming from the direction of my home, you have to pass the plant to get to the church. It just so happens that almost directly across from the plant is the parking lot for a Little League and Babe Ruth baseball complex. The parking lot was jammed full of cars, and I could hear the excitement of parents and kids enjoying their games. Then I looked over at the workers’ cars parked at the mushroom plant across the street, where there was no noise, just those huge, several storied, warehouse-like, attached wooden buildings, with all of the doors closed tight to keep out the sunlight....

I thought how sad it was that these workers, with children of their own, would hardly ever, if ever, be able to see their children play in organized sports. Working 10-12 hours a day, six days a week, does not leave much time to get involved in your kids’ lives. I wonder how this affects the kids, themselves....That’s a tough life.

I pulled into the church parking lot and was relieved to see so many cars parked there. Over 60 workers showed up. All were uniformly in favor of continuing the existing boycott, and doing whatever they could to expand it. They would take up collections for any worker laid off, and would take up those collections in front of the bosses, so the bosses would see what kind of support there was for their cause.

The workers also signed a letter of appreciation to Sam Duncan at Fred Meyer. I knew I’d made the right decision, regardless of the politics.

The Boycott Grows Things moved quickly after the Fred Meyer announcement. Safeway, once reticent about even speaking with a delegation of workers, now joined the boycott. In California, Von’s Markets and Smart and Final Brands joined Safeway and Ralph’s Markets in the boycott.

In a moment of euphoria, I think, a member of the United Farm Workers Union (UFW), which represents the mushroom workers in California, called to tell me that Arturo Rodriguez, the President of the UFW, and successor to and son-in-law of Cesar Chavez, wanted me to fly down to Ventura to meet with him and the workers in the Pictsweet factory at the plant.

California law grants unions the right to meet with their members in the plants at noon times. They wanted me to tell the workers in Ventura what we were doing here in Oregon, and then to join other political leaders and supporters in a rally in Oxnard, where a lot of the workers live. I agreed to go.

The plan was for Arturo Rodriguez and I, along with several other members of the UFW staff, to drive from the union’s Oxnard headquarters to the Pictsweet plant in Ventura, arriving there at lunch time. We would then be escorted to the lunch room, where we would speak with the workers. At the end of the lunch hour, we would leave the factory and drive to Oxnard for the rally. This plan was communicated to Pictsweet’s management in advance, as was the usual case when the UFW wanted to visit its members, so there would be no undue surprise.

I used the time en route to the plant to learn more about the circumstances of the Pictsweet workers in Ventura. Hearing the description of conditions there, it became clear to me that the issues in Ventura were much the same as the issues here in Salem. The attitudes of bosses towards their workers in Ventura and Salem were so similar that it seemed unlikely they were conceived independently by the bosses in either location, but rather in the corporate home office in Bell, Tennessee. This was a corporate culture we were dealing with, not simply rogue supervisors in the two plants. I was eager to hear more from the workers themselves, at the Ventura plant.

I sensed something was wrong when we reached the turn off to the entrance to the factory. There was a black-and-white Ventura City Police car and officers prominently stationed at the intersection. Vague fears of getting arrested now began to focus in my mind. My flippant question to the UFW official, who called me with the invitation, as to whether I should bring my toothbrush along with me to the plant, didn’t seem quite so funny anymore.

My concern heightened as my union hosts began to exclaim that all of the “No Trespassing” signs were new; they hadn’t been there the week before. I was getting the sense that Pictsweet management was trying to set us up for arrest. Perhaps I had been a little premature in allowing my membership in the California Bar Association to go “inactive.”

We pulled up to the factory’s entrance, and noted another first: the gate was chained and padlocked, and a uniformed private guard stood watch— on the other side of the locked gate.

We got out of our cars and walked to the gate. Arturo asked what was going on. The guard replied that he had been given orders not to let us on the property. Arturo reminded him that California law gave the union access, and to deny it was against the law. The guard repeated his orders. Arturo told the guard that this was a very serious violation of the law. He instructed the guard to call the factory manager and see if he still intended to block access after being reminded of the law forbidding it.

The guard stepped back a ways, to keep us from hearing, and made the call on his cell phone. The conversation was short; how long does it take to say “no,” anyway? He returned to the padlocked gate and told us his orders remained the same: He was to keep us out.

About that same time I heard the rumbling of a large truck behind me. I turned to see one of those big, 16 wheel, tractor-trailer rigs, with the Pictsweet logo on its sides, bearing down on us. Although it was advancing fairly slowly, the presence of that menacing, multi-ton piece of equipment moving toward my torso was disconcerting, to say the least.

Arturo was agitated by the refusal to let us in. The presence of the truck, which stopped about ten feet away, but continued to rev its engine and screech its airbrakes, began to annoy him even more. I was a foot or two closer to the truck than Arturo, who was nearly with his back against the fence, and I could sense that Arturo had become animated behind me. I looked over my shoulder and saw Arturo challenging the truck driver to “bring it on!” I wasn’t so certain that the driver wouldn’t accommodate Arturo’s challenge to “bring it on”, and I prepared to jump out of the way. The driver responded with more engine reving, more airbrakes, and added a nice touch: he began taking our picture from his catbird’s seat behind the wheel!

Word of our presence had obviously spread throughout the plant, as the workers began leaving the buildings and coming to the locked gate to speak with us. I was surprised to see that most of the 75 or so workers were wearing tee shirts emblazoned with the UFW logo. Some of them even sported buttons that urged boycotting their own mushrooms.

Arturo invited me to speak with the workers first, which I did with the assistance of an interpreter. I observed that I was uncertain as to whether Arturo and I were locked out, or they, the workers, were locked in by the bosses. I was certain, however, that the chain, padlock, and uniformed guard were signs of weakness, not strength. The bosses were obviously afraid of allowing their workers to hear from the union president and Mayor of Salem. The workers yelled agreement, and pushed closer to the fence to hear over the roar of the diesel engine behind me.

I told them that all companies make choices. The smart ones value their workers, and see that they receive fair wages and good medical benefits. But other companies, such as Pictsweet, merely exploit their workers to maximize short-term company profits. It wasn’t right, and it wasn’t even smart.

I asked them if they were in this struggle to win, and whether they thought they could win. They responded resoundingly and repeatedly “Si, ce puede! Si, ce puede” “Yes, We can! Yes, we can!” Their unswerving resolve was clearly evident.

Arturo then spoke through the fence. He spoke exclusively in Spanish, and his passion was so infectious that my interpreter kept forgetting to translate for me, herself being caught up in Arturo’s address to the workers. They responded with even greater passion. A mere locked fence and uniformed guard would not keep the workers from bonding with this charismatic leader of the farm labor movement in America. In fact, the lock and hired guard only seemed to heighten their respect for Arturo and their dedication to the cause.

The lunch hour came to an end, and the workers left the fence, with heads held high, to return to their work in the dark, behind the closed doors of the Ventura mushroom factory. We returned to our cars and left for the rally in Oxnard.

It had been a good meeting, after all.

The Oxnard rally was held in a restaurant that had been converted into meeting space for progressive groups, with related paintings on the walls— mostly Hispanic themes. Chavez was prominently depicted amongst many of the murals.

The place was packed with several hundred people by the time we arrived. I was warmly received, and learned for the first time that the Mayor of Ventura was a supporter of the Pictsweet workers. Apparently the city’s police car at the mushroom factory was sent to protect us, not arrest us! The Mayor of Oxnard spoke, as did one of the Ventura County Supervisors. Each was received with rousing applause. It was a friendly crowd.

I was also invited to speak, and I told of our efforts in Salem, along with my firm resolve to continue helping the workers in any way that I could. I also challenged all elected officials to stand up and be counted publicly on these important human rights issues.

I was later told that some of the elected officials present remarked that it was probably easier for them to stand up in their communities, with large Latino populations (they’re the majority in some places), than it would be in a place like Salem, Oregon. I’m not willing to concede that point, however.

It’s Not About Corporations or Unions—It’s About Doing the Right Thing Since returning to Salem, the war of letters to the editor has heated up. Clearly some in opposition are politically inspired by those who philosophically sleep with Senator Derfler. Others are driven by sentiments of anti-unionism and, unfortunately, some by rank racism. An equal number of letters are supportive of the workers and my effort to intervene on their behalf.

More retailers have quit carrying Pictsweet mushrooms. In Salem, and efforts are being made to bring additional pressure on the home office in Bell, Tennessee, to come to the table with their workers. The corporation has begun to lay some workers off. While this was expected, it is always a difficult circumstance for those who are already at the very bottom of the economic ladder in our society.

I met with Sam Duncan, of Fred Meyer, again, along with one of the workers and several representatives of PCUN. Sam told us he’d recently been approached by Pictsweet’s management in an effort to get him to change his mind. Sam paused for a moment, and I held my breath. He went on to say that although he had no position on whether or not the Pictsweet workers in Salem should join a union, he was firmly convinced that there were serious human rights problems in the Salem factory, just as there are in the Ventura factory. So, until the Pictsweet corporation could demonstrate to Sam that they had addressed those human rights issues satisfactorily, he would not carry their product. The Pictsweet representatives left his office clearly upset.

I have received about a dozen calls critical of my stance, and I have returned calls to each of those who left their number. It is interesting that when I tell them that Pictsweet is not some small, locally-owned operation, but rather is owned by a Tennessee corporation that apparently grosses several hundred million dollars a year and, according to a 1999 report, pays its CEO over a million dollars annually, nearly half of them markedly change their views.

I tell the anti-unionist callers, some of whom operate family farms, that the reason the union is involved with this is because the corporation drove its workers into the union’s arms by refusing to talk with their workers in the first place. It’s essentially Pictsweet’s own darn fault that the union is successfully working to organize Pictsweet’s workers here in Salem, just as they did in Ventura.

Moreover, it’s time that family farmers and farm laborers, alike, come to realize that they should be joining together to get a greater share of the existing pie for each of them, which they rightly deserve, rather than fighting each other while the supra national corporations rake in the lion’s share of existing profits in the food delivery system. It’s a natural alliance.

I have heard that the UFW is going into court to gain an injunction against Pictsweet to enjoin them from blocking union access to their members during the lunch hour in the future. Arturo said that once that is granted, he would invite me back to the Ventura plant.

I hope that their petition for an injunction is broad enough to include restraining that guy from assaulting us again with his 16 wheeler. It may just be me, but I’m not so certain that his foot might not slip off the clutch next time and pancake Arturo and me against that steel fence. “Accidents,” like mushroom compost, happen sometimes, you know.

Mike Swaim is the Mayor of Salem, Oregon. Mike may be contacted at mswaim.aol.com, or he can be reached at his office, 503-363-0063.

Alternatives Magazine - Issue 19
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