STOCKTON -- For the first time in more than 20 years, United Farm Workers has a membership presence in San Joaquin County.
In a downtown Stockton ceremony, UFW President Arturo S. Rodríguez signed a contract with one of the nation's largest fresh tomato companies.
Tracy-based Pacific Triple E operating partner Jon Esformes also signed the agreement that requires the company's labor contractors to work with representatives from the farm labor group in paying livable wages for hourly and daily employees.
The United Farm Workers, founded by César Chávez and Stockton-raised activist Dolores Huerta, has not been active in San Joaquín County since the 1980s.
The tomato contract gives the union a footing in the local farm labor market.
The contract will give pay raises to some 800 laborers working under contractors for Pacific Triple E, a family-owned company.
Pacific Triple E is part of national supplier SUNRIPE and employs workers in five California counties -- Fresno, Merced, Madera, San Joaquín and Sacramento.
Agriculture is a $2 billion industry in San Joaquín County. And the fresh tomatoes the sixth-largest cash crop, yielding $115.7 million per year.
Rodríguez said the new relationship establishes a precedent in local agriculture. He said families will be compensated for what they deserve.
"We're very much looking forward to the relationship that has begun here," Rodríguez said.
Esformes and Rodríguez signed the agreement at a conference last Thursday afternoon at the Mexican Heritage Center.
Under the contract, laborers will receive wage increases of 12 percent to 57.4 percent over a period of three years.
"The three-year contract we are signing with Pacific Triple E also makes them the best-paid tomato workers in the nation," Rodríguez said in a statement.
A newly formed grievance procedure allows workers to voice their concerns to a third party without fear of retribution.
"Quite frankly, there is a culture gap that most people don't want to acknowledge in the United States," Esformes said. He said that immigrant employees are not used to speaking out and filing complaints.
A third-party agreement can make that process smoother, he said.
Esformes said treating people with respect is certainly his priority, and the union partnership helps him hold supervisors accountable. "I'm not putting my head in the sand," he said.
Ending months of negotiations, the contract also includes a pension plan, job security provisions and a seniority plan for the roughly 800 workers.
Discussions between the union and company representatives have been civil and productive, according to both parties.
"Too often, employers do not want to take responsibility for their actions," said Rodríguez, adding that that wasn't the case with Pacific Triple E. "And that says a lot about the (Esformes) family."