Wine Searcher

Sonoma's Battle for the Vineyard Workers

After years of being under the radar, vineyard workers now have people clamoring to take their side.

W. Blake Gray
Saturday, 14-May-2022

Two competing groups have popped up in Sonoma County claiming to represent vineyard workers: one led by a national labor organization, and the other by the wine industry. The latter group showed up in force last week at a county board of supervisors meeting, bringing 150 farmworkers in matching t-shirts to support the grapegrowers' position.

The issue on the table is simple. Sonoma County is trying to come up with an official plan for how and when to allow people into zones that have been evacuated because of fire risk. Until 2017, this wasn't an issue anyone had thought much about. But with climate change and a longterm drought, Sonoma has now faced fires during harvest season in three of the last five years, and in an area with abundant forest land, fire risk is now foremost on the agenda.

The national group is Jobs with Justice, which has branches in 22 states. It has advocated for pork-processing workers, Walmart workers and student-loan borrowers. Max Bell Alper, executive director of North Bay Jobs with Justice, is seeking three things from the county: emergency training in indigenous languages, hazard pay for workers in fire evacuation zones, and guaranteed regular pay for workers who decline to enter evacuation zones.

Alper said that these were three of five priorities that emerged after his organization did a series of surveys of farmworkers. The other two are clean bathrooms and drinking water, and community safety observers.

"We're trying to make sure the most vulnerable workers have a voice," Alper told Wine-Searcher. "A lot of farmworkers have kids. You're going and harvesting at night, during the fires. For them it means, leaving the family at home in the middle of the night, while we're watching the progress of the fire, and going to work inside the evacuation zones."

The language issue would be challenging for most employers because Alper is not talking about Spanish, the lingua franca of vineyard workers. He said workers speak five indigenous languages – Mixteco, Zapatec, Mayan, Triqui and Chatino – and they should receive fire safety training in the language they know best. Alper said his organization could connect grapegrowers with speakers of those languages who can translate into Spanish.

As for wages, Alper said workers do not really have a choice about whether or not to enter a fire evacuation zone if they will only be paid if they do enter.

"We have a situation where we're coercing low-wage immigrant and indigenous workers," Alper said. He said double-time hazard pay would be appropriate for workers in fire zones, given the risks from both fire and smoke inhalation.


The new industry group is Sonoma WISE (Wine Industry for Safe Employees). Spokesperson John Segale told Wine-Searcher that the only issue the county board of supervisors should be considering is the one on the table: what standards should apply when people want to re-enter an evacuation zone. Both Napa and Sonoma counties have, in the past few years, issued an "ag pass" to workers that lets them get past police checkpoints during fires.

"Napa, Santa BarbaraPlacerEl Dorado and Nevada counties have all adopted formal access policies," Segale said. "All have hilly terrain, susceptible to wildfires, with a big agricultural aspect. We don't understand why North Bay Jobs for Justice is making these demands in Sonoma County, and only of the wine community. They're not asking other industries, like construction or road crews, to meet these demands. What they've done is attempted to hijack the process. We just support the continuation of having Sonoma County's public officials be in charge of any access to any wildfire area. They should determine when it is safe to enter any wildfire area."

Sonoma WISE won the public-appearance battle last week with its 150 uniformed farmworkers. The Santa Rosa Press-Democrat reported that supervisor Linda Hopkins "asked through an interpreter if the farmworkers attended the meeting at the request of their employer. No one inside the boardroom raised their hands. Everyone raised their hand after Hopkins asked if they were paid at least $15 an hour and about half responded that they were paid $20 an hour or more."

Segale said Sonoma grapegrowers have greatly improved conditions for farmworkers over the last few years. (Having attended a number of grapegrower conferences there, I can add that this was an oft-stated goal.)

"We represent vineyard employees," Segale said. "There are 6810 vineyard employees in Sonoma County. Of that, 6139 are fulltime employees. This is a number that has been changing for the positive. Five years ago there were 5186 fulltime employees and 2644 seasonal laborers. We're creating more full-time jobs. That is why we had such a big turnout this week. The vineyard employees are upset because North Bay Jobs for Justice continues to claim they represent them. They do not."

Alper called Sonoma WISE's effort "astroturfing:" a term labor organizations use when a company tries to make a coordinated campaign look like a grassroots event. He said the farmworkers at last week's meeting arrived in vans, some of which had the company logo papered over.

"Sonoma County Winegrowers is unusual in that all growers are legally required to pay into the growers' association," Alper said. "I think it would be better for the Sonoma County winegrowers to put their money and their time into better conditions for workers. They're choosing to use their resources for astroturfing."

The county board has an ad hoc committee on the issue that will make recommendations, and the board is expected to hold a community engagement meeting on the issue on May 26, but no formal ruling is expected at that meeting. Fire season starts in late summer.

Original article:

© AP | Vineyard workers in Sonoma now have two organizations offering to represent them.