A group of vineyard workers attended the Sonoma County board of supervisors meeting this week to speak out. The workers
represent a new industry group, the Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, or Sonoma WISE, and they contradicted claims from a well-known local labor advocacy group.
Showing up en masse, the more than one hundred fifty workers wore matching shirts emblazoned with the words “NBJwJ does NOT speak for me."Those initials stand for North Bay Jobs with Justice, the local chapter of a national organization focused on workers' rights and economic justice.
The workers addressed county officials during public comment. Those who spoke refuted claims and demands made by North Bay Jobs with Justice about topics like working conditions and safety measures. They ended their comments by noting that North Bay Jobs with Justice does not represent them.
Marcelino Santa Maria, the first vineyard worker to speak, said in over two decades in the industry, his employers have always met basic health and safety standards.
"Employers provide us clean water, clean portable patterns, safety training, and I never, and this more than 20 years been forced to work in un-safety conditions." Santa Maria said.
Fabian Garcia, another vineyard worker, addressed one of Jobs with Justice’s main demands: language justice. Speaking through an interpreter, he pointed to Job with Justice's failure to provide web services in languages like Mixteco.
"And at the end of the website, they're only giving you two language options, English and Spanish. It's ironic that they're not practicing what they're asking others to do." Garcia said.
The Sonoma WISE website, which is registered to the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation, has an English or Spanish feature; no indigenous language options either.
Nicolas Hernandez, another vineyard worker with Sonoma WISE, also speaking through the interpreter, said transcribing the indigenous languages is simply not possible.
"I, myself speak a native language and many individuals do speak different dialects. What North Bay Jobs is asking for it's impossible. As the majority of these dialects cannot be written. They only exist as verbal word languages, not written languages." Hernandez said.
After speaking with workers in attendance, North Bay Jobs with Justice executive director Max Bell Alper pushed back in public comment, accusing employers of transporting and paying workers to comment at the meeting, describing the effort by Sonoma WISE as "astroturfing".
"Not only were they paid by the companies, but they were given shirts by the companies to wear. They were brought in company vehicles. And so we wish that the wine industry would actually spend their time and money trying to make improvements for workers rather than pretending that everything is okay. And paying workers to say that." Bell Alper said.
Sonoma WISE's affiliate, the Sonoma County Grape Growers Foundation provides financial, educational, healthcare, and housing assistance to vineyard workers. The organization says it found in a 2021 survey of nearly 1,000 vineyard employees, that only 5 spoke indigenous languages as their primary language. And each had translation assistance from coworkers.
Grape Grower Foundation executive director Karissa Kruse also went on the public record, saying it was the proudest day of her decade tenure.
"Because today is the day that our vineyard employees have come forward to tell you how they feel about working in agriculture here in Sonoma County and how they feel about their employers." Kruse said.
She also detailed some of the Grape Growers Foundation's various support programs.
"In 2019, we supported 970 families impacted by the Kincade fire. We did the same in 2020, we conducted the vaccination process and facilitated that for all 6,000 of the vineyard workforce. So they were first in line for the vaccinations." Kruse said.
According to the Sonoma WISE website, there are more than 6,800 vineyard employees working in Sonoma County, and the group says 90% are employed full-time. The Sonoma County Grape Growers say that's changed from 5 years ago, when roughly half of vineyard employees were seasonal or day laborers.
North Bay Jobs with Justice claims the actual number of vineyard workers in Sonoma County is almost double the numbers put out by the Grape Growers Foundation, estimating there are over 11,000 with seasonal workers included.
Bell Alper also reiterated one of Jobs with Justice's main worker demands, which he called the "real question" at the heart of the matter.
"Will they pay hazard pay when workers go into evacuation zones? And if they won't, why are they opposed to it?" Bell Alper asked.