In northern California, the grape harvesting season has been transformed by fire. Sonoma county is known internationally for its pinot noir but – 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.
Vineyard laborers are pressing officials to enact stronger worker protections during wildfire seasons. They want hazard pay, disaster insurance and safety material distributed in Indigenous languages such as 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.
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 has become a major point of contention.
A 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 the movements for worker’s rights. In recent months, a 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. A copyright sign at the bottom of the web site is labeled Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, which contributes money to wine industry-supported causesVineyard 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. 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. Their testimony led to positive news coverage for the wine industry. 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.
Since the meeting, 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 explained. 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 many said Calvo instructed them on what kinds of things to say.
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. 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. 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.