HOME OF TASTY GREENHOUSE TOMATOES

Eurofresh and union thrive in cooperation

Company is among eight in nation that made Labor Day list
2010-09-06T00:00:00Z 2014-07-02T12:44:28Z Eurofresh and union thrive in cooperationDavid Wichner Arizona Daily Star Arizona Daily Star
September 06, 2010 12:00 am  • 

A decade ago, Willcox vegetable grower Eurofresh Inc. was embroiled in a bitter strike as workers protested poor wages and working conditions.

Now, the company known for its tasty greenhouse tomatoes is being hailed as a model of corporate-union cooperation.

Eurofresh was among eight companies nationwide named to "The Labor Day List: Partnerships That Work," an annual list compiled by the American Rights at Work Education Fund, a pro-union-rights group based in Washington, D.C.

The group's sixth annual list recognizes "successful partnerships between employers and their employees' labor unions that are working well in the global economy."

Eurofresh, which emerged from Chapter 11 bankruptcy reorganization last fall, was cited by the labor group for its "fruitful relationship" with its workers and their union and its commitment to sustainable practices, food safety and workers' rights.

Eurofresh, which markets its products as Eurofresh Farms, started operations near Willcox in 1992 and now operates one of the largest greenhouse complexes in the world - more than 300 acres under glass near Willcox and at a smaller operation in Snowflake.

Besides helping Eurofresh grow award-winning crops - its tomatoes have been named "America's Best Tasting Tomato" by the American Culinary Institute for more than 10 years - the hydroponic growing operations reduce land and water use and are pesticide-free, protecting the health of workers and consumers as well as the environment, the labor group said.

One of Southern Arizona's largest employers, with more than 800 workers, Eurofresh is committed to working out problems with the union, the United Food and Commercial Workers International Union, said Paul Rubin, secretary-treasurer of UFCW Local 99.

For example, Rubin said the company has worked with the union and local agencies to help find affordable housing for the workers, who gained union representation in 2000.

"Obviously, we're not always going to agree, but a joint problem-resolution attitude is definitely what we have there," Rubin said.

"Thanks to our employees and the union, we have a good quality product that is safe," Robert Pulido, Eurofresh vice president for human resources, was quoted as saying in The Labor Day List. "It's a group effort."

Pulido was traveling and unavailable for additional comment, a company spokesman said last week.

The union also collaborates with the company to train employees on plant-disease-prevention procedures, protecting the company's crops and ultimately consumer safety, the labor fund said.

That's important for the company's bottom line as well.

When Eurofresh filed for bankruptcy protection in April 2009, it said one reason for the filing was a virulent plant disease and a whitefly infestation that had cost the company nearly $8 million on lost crops.

The company also was praised for its wages and benefits. Eurofresh workers earn about 65 percent more than nonunion agricultural workers, the labor group said.

Rubin said union wages at the company range from about $11 to $13 an hour, including incentive pay, plus employee and family health benefits with premiums fully paid by the company.

Yet the company has had trouble hiring enough employees, hiring foreign workers on temporary work visas and using local inmate labor to pick crops.

The foreign-worker strategy landed the company in trouble when some U.S. workers complained that the foreign workers received preferential treatment from the company.

The company settled the matter with the U.S. Labor Department's Wage and Hour Division in December 2009 by agreeing to pay nearly $1 million in back wages and interest to 587 U.S. workers.

The company no longer uses foreign workers but still uses inmate labor, Rubin said. "Finding employees has been a big issue for them," he said.

"Eleven, 13 bucks an hour, and good benefits, you'd think employees would be flocking to work there," he said. "But they've obviously had trouble recruiting people because it's physical labor; it's not an easy job."

Contact Assistant Business Editor David Wichner at dwichner@azstarnet.com or 573-4181.

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