Dan Morain

Dan Morain: Labor struggles in tough market

Dan Morain
Dan Morain

HANFORD – Rosaura Mendoza tries to feed and clothe two young daughters on a $13-an-hour wage at the Marquez Brothers-El Mexicano cheese factory here, hoping for a slice of the American Dream that the Marquez brothers live.

A year ago, Mendoza and few of her friends stood up to their bosses.

"I could find another job," said Mendoza, who started working at the plant 13 years ago when she was 20. "Others maybe can't. I feel like I need to help them."

In a matter of weeks, Mendoza helped gather signatures of 168 workers wanting to join the Teamsters, a strong showing in a factory that employs about 200 and a reflection of worker disenchantment. But while the workers certified the Teamsters as their union in July, contracts talks have stalled. Nine months later, the fight is getting nastier.

Workers allege intimidation by bosses, and Assembly Democrats, doing labor's bidding, have threatened the company.

Teamster attorney John Provost has tried to force a resolution by requesting a last and best offer from Marquez Brothers. He also complained to the National Labor Relations Board that Marquez is bargaining in bad faith and has recriminated against workers. Robert Millman, Marquez's lawyer, shrugged off the accusations and said first contracts often take months to negotiate.

After negotiations broke down last week, Mendoza and a few other workers sat at a restaurant a few blocks from the Marquez Brothers' red-and-white tiled factory façade. They all want better pay and benefits. But more important, they said, the company treats workers badly, ironic given the Marquez family's immigrant roots and the people who buy their cheese.

"His empire is built on the backs of his own folks," Isaac Salgado, who manages wastewater from cheese production, said, referring to chief executive Gustavo Marquez.

The Teamsters are well aware of all that. The union also knows that Latinos are key to its future. The union plans to organize more Central Valley food processors, which makes winning a contract at Marquez more important.

"This campaign is about empowering Latinos," said Doug Block, a Central Valley Teamster leader.

Gustavo Marquez didn't talk to me, at Millman's advice and that of his public relations consultant. But by all indications, he is a study in free enterprise. He emigrated from Mexico in 1973 when he was about 16, and found work washing dishes.

He and his wife bought an industrial food tub in 1981, started making cheese in their San Jose garage and supplied grocery stores that catered to Mexican immigrants.

Marquez Brothers remains in San Jose but has come a long way from that tub. It doesn't disclose its revenue, but it's the nation's largest producer of Mexican cheese. It also produces whey, chorizo, jalapeños, salsa, bottled water and sweets. A subsidiary promotes wrestling, boxing and concerts catering to Mexican immigrants.

Teamsters are handing out leaflets at those events, including one that was to be distributed at a Gerardo Ortiz concert at the San Jose Convention Center Saturday night:

"At the heart of the El Mexicano brand is its California food and dairy facilities and the immigrant Latinos who work there. These workers are organizing for better wages and working conditions with the Teamsters union. They have been met with harassment, unfair firings and other fear tactics."

Marquez understands that the Central Valley job market is tough, and is especially harsh for people who don't speak English. Kings County, where the cheese plant is located, ranks 49th of the 58 counties with 15.4 percent unemployment, only slightly less shameful than neighboring Tulare County with 15.7 percent unemployment.

Just as the Teamsters introduced me to union backers, company executives asked union skeptics to talk at a restaurant across from the factory.

Shortly after going to work at the factory 15 years ago, Deliliah Cancio's husband died. She was touched that one of the Marquez brothers, Juan, attended the funeral. Her boss gave her two weeks off when her mother died, though the policy is for a three-day bereavement.

"I have babies to feed. Nobody is going to do that for me," said Cancio, a mother of eight.

Public employee unions cement their positions with campaign donations and get-out-the-vote drives that prop up politicians who ratify their pay packages.

For unions that organize private employers, winning contracts is a slog, one complicated by a U.S. Court of Appeals decision in January that calls into question the authority of the National Labor Relations Board to enforce its orders. The court nullified three of President Barack Obama's appointees to the five-member board, saying he misused his authority to make appointments when the Senate was in recess.

"Many employers are taking the position that they're not going to cooperate with the NLRB," said William B. Gould IV, a Stanford Law School professor and former NLRB chair. "Since any NLRB order can be appealed to that court, all parties know that its orders don't have the force of law at present."

In California's Capitol, the situation is different. The Teamsters showed their clout at a March 6 Assembly Labor and Employment Committee hearing focusing on intimidation of workers, particularly immigrants.

Marquez Brothers played into that theme by sending executives to the hearing, keeping tabs on Marquez employees who testified. I don't doubt that bad bosses retaliate. But as is often the case in the Assembly these days, the hearing was a show, and Assemblyman Roger Hernández, a San Gabriel Valley Democrat who chairs the committee, was the one issuing threats.

"This committee will not tolerate any retaliation," Hernández declared, warning he would subpoena Marquez if any of the workers who testified were fired, and eliciting an ovation from the audience. A month after the hearing, Marquez did fire a worker who testified. Hernández has not said whether he will follow through on his pledge.

The Marquez Brothers fight will get rougher and spread as workers like Mendoza seek better wages and benefits from bosses like Marquez.

Labor Democrats like Hernández will bloviate. That's in their nature. Perhaps they should look for ways to help factories, particularly ones that provide jobs in regions where unemployment is disgracefully high.

Teamsters will bargain hard and campaign to pressure factory owners, reminding us all about the price of what we eat.

Follow Dan Morain on Twitter @danielmorain.