California vineyard laborers wanted wildfire safety. Then came a shadowy counter-movement

When Margarita García, a 39-year-old mother from Oaxaca, Mexico, picks wine grapes during a wildfire, the sky is red and thick with smoke. Ash falls on her face, irritating her throat and eyes. The hot, fast work makes N-95 masks too suffocating, so she and her colleagues opt for bandanas.

In this part of northern California, the grape harvesting season has been transformed by fire. Sonoma county is known internationally for its pinot noir and – increasingly – for intense wildfire seasons made worse by the climate crisis. That has created new economic threats for both grape growers, who can lose an entire season’s harvest in a matter of hours, and for workers, who must operate in increasingly dangerous conditions without replacement income if work is called off.

Now, vineyard laborers like García are pressing officials to enact stronger worker protections during wildfire seasons. They want hazard pay, disaster insurance and safety material distributed in Indigenous languages – García’s first language is Mixteco. They are also pushing for community safety observers to be allowed to monitor working conditions in evacuation zones and for clean water and bathrooms, even when the ash is falling.

It’s an example of a type of climate-driven labor organizing that is growing across the US, as workers face new climate hazards, such as exposure to extreme heat and hurricane disaster zones littered with dangerous materials.

In turn, a surprising counter-movement has arisen – one that has the veneer of being worker-led, but is driven by the wine industry itself.

Labor organizers say it’s a familiar tactic – one that’s long been used by powerful industries to curtail movements for worker’s rights.

When record-breaking wildfires burned through the picturesque vineyards in 2017, winemakers and Sonoma county officials decided to salvage their region’s economic lifeblood by sending workers into mandatory evacuation zones deemed too dangerous for the public. Since then, the county has repeatedly deployed a hastily assembled system for approving worker entry into evacuation zones, known as Ag Pass.

Vineyard workers, supported by the coalition North Bay Jobs with Justice, won a small but significant victory in February when the county board of supervisors agreed to establish a committee to formalize the permitting system for work in wildfire evacuation zones. For the first time, the public has a say in how the Ag Pass program will work. Whether or not the county will incorporate demands from workers like García has become a major point of contention.

But in recent months, a slick website has appeared under the name Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, or Sonoma Wise, featuring counterpoints to demands from North Bay Jobs with Justice.

Vineyard workers apparently affiliated with Sonoma Wise have rallied by the dozens against the new protections proposed by Jobs with Justice. Since then, several have stepped forward to say they felt pressured to participate by their employers.

In early May, around 150 vineyard workers wearing matching t-shirts flooded into a weekly meeting held by Sonoma’s board of supervisors. They weren’t there to fight for better protections. “NBJwJ does NOT Speak for Me,” said the T-shirts, using an acronym for North Bay Jobs with Justice. “I am a Sonoma County Vineyard Employee,” they said on the back. According to local reporters, the workers were there as part of Sonoma Wise.

One by one, workers told county board members similar versions of the same story: they always have access to clean water and clean bathrooms, they feel safe at work, and North Bay Jobs with Justice does not represent them. Translating for Spanish-speakers was Raul Calvo, owner of Employer Services, a firm that has earned at least $2m over the past eight years by attempting to convince workers to vote against unionization, US Department of Labor records confirm.

The testimony led to positive news coverage for the wine industry. “Farmworkers show support for wine industry in front of Sonoma County Board of Supervisors as debate continues over wildfire safety,” read a local headline.

However, since the meeting, nine workers have contacted North Bay Jobs with Justice to say they felt obligated by their employers to attend the meeting. “If I didn’t do it, I would be out of a job,” one of the workers who wore a t-shirt told the Guardian. The worker declined to be named out of fear of repercussions, adding, “None of us are going to speak against the ranchers or the companies.”

According to North Bay Jobs with Justice executive director Max Bell Alper, all of the workers who reached out said that many of those wearing t-shirts were either in a management position or working via the temporary agricultural worker program known as H-2A, meaning their US visa status is contingent on employer sponsorship. He added that some of the workers said they were paid to attend the meeting, and multiple said Calvo instructed the attendees on what kinds of things to say.

Sonoma Wise spokesperson John Segale declined to clarify the group’s role in orchestrating the worker actions. “We always encourage all our vineyard employees to tell their story no matter what,” he said. However, he added, “Nobody has told anyone what to say. The vineyard employees chose to become active on this issue because they were mad at how they were repeatedly disrespected by Max Alper and North Bay Jobs with Justice.”

It’s unclear who precisely is funding Sonoma Wise. A copyright sign at the bottom of the web site is labeled Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, which contributes money to wine industry-supported causes. According to Alper, who attended the May board meeting, some of the workers arrived in big white vans bearing the name Bevill, a company owned by the chair of the foundation. The front passenger’s side door of another van carrying workers was affixed with a blank piece of poster board, bordered in blue painter’s tape. Underneath the paper, according to photos provided by Alper, was the name Redwood Empire Vineyard Management, a company owned by a commissioner from the foundation’s sister organization, Sonoma County Winegrowers.

Segale said the group has “no connection” with the foundation or Sonoma County Winegrowers and, instead, “receives support from the region’s wine community, the local hospitality industry, the business community, area non-profits and the public”. Neither Bevill nor Redwood Empire Vineyard Management responded to requests for comment, and the foundation did not answer questions about its relationship with Sonoma Wise.

For García, who lost her home to the 2017 wildfires, the message of the t-shirts is personally offensive. “North Bay Jobs with Justice isn’t speaking for me, either,” she said. “I’m speaking – I have my own voice.”

Efforts to make union-busting that appear to be worker-led have been part of anti-union consultants’ playbook since at least the 1950s. It’s a tactic that has since evolved into elaborate efforts known as “astroturfing”, defined by the creation of fake grassroots groups.

Jane McAlevey, author of A Collective Bargain: Unions, Organizing, and the Fight for Democracy said it makes sense that similar tactics would be used against workers newly organizing for labor rights related to climate crisis impacts.

With the climate and labor movements becoming more integrated, she said, “It drives the stakes higher for California employers.”

Figures affiliated with Sonoma Wise have a history of working for companies fighting unionization. The t-shirts made their first appearance at a gathering in April, scheduled to coincide with a rally North Bay Jobs with Justice held to pressure county officials. On hand to answer questions from reporters was Segale, who has repeatedly served as a spokesperson for companies facing labor disputes over the past 20 years.

Calvo, the translator for workers at the board meeting, is also well known among California labor organizers. According to disclosure forms he submitted to the US Department of Labor, he charged more than $2m to the vegetable packaging company Curation foods and its labor contractor Pacific Harvest, as workers sought to unionize over the last eight years. The effort had echoes of the Sonoma Wise campaign, with some workers showing up to work wearing “Vote No” t-shirts that had been handed out by managers, according to the Santa Maria Times. In turn, workers have repeatedly voted against unionization.

Calvo declined a request for comment. Segale said, “If I specialize in anything it is helping farmers and ranchers tell their story of what it takes to persevere and grow products that feed the country and the world.” He added, “Sharing the stories of vineyard employees and wine grape growers and responding to wild allegations and lies from North Bay Jobs with Justice is hardly considered a labor busting tactic.”

McAlevey noted that such tactics should already be familiar to county leaders. Elsewhere in Sonoma, the local Press Democrat recently published an exposé describing union-busting tactics used by Amy’s Kitchen, the nation’s largest producer of frozen organic food. After workers picketed against the company outside one of its Sonoma county businesses, counter-protesters began showing up every Friday wearing matching green t-shirts and shouting anti-union sentiments. Meanwhile, consultants for a union avoidance firm roamed the Amy’s plant.

​​“The Sonoma County Board of Supervisor needs to take responsibility to act now and act quickly and not be fooled by a high-priced union busting campaign,” said McAlevey.

“I am not influenced by tactics,” retorted supervisor Chris Coursey, a member of the evacuation zone committee. “Both Sonoma Wise and [North Bay Jobs with Justice] are using tactics that are often employed in labor-issue campaigns and disputes.”

On the question of language support, Sonoma Wise contests the need by citing a survey by the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, showing only five out of 965 participants identified their primary language as Mixteco or Chatino. All five workers said they had the translation services they needed – in short, there are no speakers of Indigenous languages to accommodate, the growers argue.

Alper challenged the quality of the foundation’s data, saying that North Bay Jobs with Justice determined its demands via its own survey of 100 workers, conducted by farmworker leaders. Some said they did not fully understand the safety trainings, and many described facing workplace discrimination for speaking an Indigenous language, making them even less likely to ask employers for new language resources.

“On a deeper level, this misses the fundamental point, which is that many of these languages that are spoken by these workers are at risk of disappearing,” he added.

Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation executive director Karissa Kruse responded that the group’s survey was anonymous and was collected by the foundation, rather than employers. “It seems quite disrespectful that someone would believe that vineyard employees are not smart enough or savvy enough to answer a survey truthfully and provide their perspective,” she said.

What’s clear to Michael Méndez, an assistant professor at the University of California, Irvine, is that the county’s existing Ag Pass program is falling far short of verifying that evacuation zones are safe for workers. He and PhD student Carlo Chunga Pizarro reviewed the applications growers submitted for Ag Passes during the 2020 wildfire season. They could identify no clear protocol for approving or denying the passes.

“It’s not climate adaptation, it’s maladaptation,” Méndez said of the program. He noted that a recent study found that the tiny particles that make up wildfire smoke can be 10 times more dangerous to human health than car exhaust.

“It’s the government’s role to have a stronger hand in regulation and ensuring the safety of not just the economy but also workers, and that has not happened yet,” Méndez said.

With an early wildfire already prompting evacuations this month in the neighboring wine region of Napa county, even Segale of Sonoma Wise agrees that the Board of Supervisors must act with urgency to enact a new access policy.

The county board’s evacuation zone committee has said it aims to finalize such a policy by 1 August. Its priority will be determining who should be eligible for the Ag Pass, Supervisor Coursey told the Guardian, and that, while hazard pay and disaster insurance are on their agenda, those will take more time.

If García had her way, workers simply would not be sent into evacuation zones. However, given the precarity of her job and her family’s economic constraints, she said there’s no real choice for her and others but to accept the risk and work. The fact that many workers are undocumented or working via temporary visas only heightens their vulnerability.

That’s why additional economic provisions – such as increased pay for hazardous work and disaster insurance so that workers are compensated when wildfires make it too dangerous to enter the fields – would make a difference.

Said García, “We’re not here to fight, nor are we against our employers, we’re just asking for what’s right.”

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