Simi winery picket

Farmworkers picketed outside Simi Winery in Healdsburg calling for hazard pay, language access and improved working conditions on Nov. 13. The demonstration was largely led by North Bay Jobs with Justice.

On the evening of Simi Winery’s harvest celebration dinner, dozens of farmworkers and advocates picketed outside the Healdsburg venue for hazard pay, improved working conditions and dignity for field workers Saturday night, Nov. 13.

“With our voices united, we’re going to fight for justice, and we’re going to win justice,” declared farmworker Maria Salinas, as translated from Spanish to English by Organizing Director Davin Cardenas of North Bay Jobs with Justice (NBJwJ).

The organization is a grassroots coalition of numerous groups working for labor reform, pulling the protest together with farmworkers. NBJwJ Executive Director Max Bell Alper said they’ve partnered with the Graton Day Labor Center, its ALMAS group (the Alianza de Mujeres Activas y Solidarias, or in English, the Women’s Action and Solidarity Alliance), the North Bay Organizing Project, Movimiento Cultural de la Unión Indígena and others for its farmworker safety coalition for the past year.

Workers and advocates marched in a tight loop in the front of Simi Winery, chanting along to drumming and carrying signs that highlighted the demands of the “Five for Farmworkers in Fires” campaign.

The Five for Farmworkers campaign asks wineries and local elected figures to sign onto a petition to support language justice, disaster insurance, community safety observers, premium hazard pay and clean bathrooms and water during the dual harvest and wildfire season.

“We’re here so that they respect Indigenous languages on the job. We’re here so they pay hazard pay when we’re working during the fires. We’re here so they make sure that there’s clean bathrooms and water when there’s fire on the job,” Salinas said, as translated by Cardenas. Her own language is not Spanish, but Chatino, an Indigenous language.

Her speech continued, “As undocumented people, we don’t have the same benefits. The grape harvest is done this year and now we have to think about how we’re going to put food on our tables because we don’t qualify for the same benefits as others who work in this country.”

Simi Winery is known for its history of women’s leadership as managers, presidents and winemakers, but the empowerment does not extend so far outside the tasting room, according to farmworker and NBJwJ organizer Anayeli Guzmán.

Davida Sotelo Escobedo, NBJwJ’s communications and research coordinator, translated an interview with Guzmán from Spanish to English for SoCoNews. “She’s talking about how, ‘Sure, Simi talks about this, but they need to realize that there are women, there are mothers working in the fields and that they need to support them as well and realize how difficult that work is,” they interpreted.

Some of Guzmán’s most striking experiences have put her in danger, like working through past wildfires to scrape by. “She’s talking about her as a woman and a mother having to leave her child, having to go work at night during these dangerous conditions, having to work under red flag warnings, and the danger of just having to make a living,” Sotelo Escobedo said.

Her message to the community and to all was that their successes are far greater when people unite and getting these five demands into effect would make a huge difference for farmworkers at the wineries.

Although Simi Winery’s website did not offer a phone number, email or other immediate contact weekend, its parent company Constellation Brands responded to a request for statement regarding the planned demonstration with this message:

“At Simi, our team members and management enjoy a strong working relationship with direct lines of open, honest communication.  Working together, we've established a long history of providing competitive pay and benefits, a safe and sanitary workplace, and a culture where team members feel welcome, valued and respected.”

The statement continued, “We remain committed to working directly with our team members to continue to provide a work experience that enables them to do their best work in a safe and inclusive environment, while providing for themselves and their families,” without any mention of the protest or its demands.

Bell Alper said the protest comes after about two months of reaching out to the winery and hearing hardly any response besides management turning away a “small delegation” of farmworkers and advocates who tried to meet in person at the end of October. He said the management figure told them things were too busy at the winery to meet at that time.

He said the $145 cost per plate for Simi’s harvest dinner is roughly what a farmworker makes harvesting one ton of grapes, which can take a whole day. Bell Alper shared that estimated pay comes from NBJwJ’s  survey of 100 farmworkers and findings from federal job orders growers have to turn in that indicate pay for H2A workers.

The demonstration raised the question of how a winery can celebrate the harvest without celebrating its farmworkers, seeking to bring out the context of the wine industry’s successes “depending on workers as the backbone of this economy,” Bell Alper said, who are largely low-wage immigrant workers on the “frontlines” of climate change.

“When we went to the tasting room two weeks ago and we brought up these concerns, one of the things that the manager told us was that during the smoke, the tasting room employees were able to go home, to not work and to still get paid, which we think is a good thing and is actually what the farmworkers are asking for. But if it’s good enough for the people in the tasting room, why is it not good enough for the people harvesting the grapes?” he said.

“And that’s important especially to note that in that moment that we were talking with that manager, that the workers in the tasting room at that moment were all white workers, and all of the grapepickers are people of color, immigrants, are Indigenous migrants, so it’s a racial justice issue as well to make sure everybody is treated with dignity and respect,” Bell Alper continued.

On Saturday, Simi Winery appeared to have a fairly muted response, with a couple men in suits ensuring protesters did not step beyond a certain line on the property.

The one noticeable confrontation involved a young man whose dancing began to disrupt the picketing line. He refused to stop and behaved erratically and aggressively when approached by others. Not long after, Healdsburg Police arrived in response to calls about a possibly drunk man who had apparently already left, according to Sergeant Will Van Vleck.

Staff Writer

Camille graduated from Santa Rosa Junior College and Sacramento State, studying sociology and journalism. While jargon sometimes moves her to tears, she strives to “make it make sense” so people can get informed and get engaged.

(1) comment

Gaiil Jonas

Thanks for this article, Camille. I was surprised that so few Healdsburg residents showed up. Our wine/tourism businesses depend on the hard work performed by farmworkers and the many Latinos/Latinas who work in the hospitality sector. I hope you article increases our awareness of how important these hard workers are to our community.

I was there and thrilled to see so much enthusiasm along with the large number of children who participated.

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