Bucking off Chuck

Bucking off Chuck

Death of 17-year-old pregnant farm worker incites campaign against Trader Joe’s

By Amanda Witherell

It was a steamy 95 degrees inside the vineyard, just east of Stockton, where Maria Isabel Vasquez Jimenez was pruning a shadeless stretch of young vines. It was May 14, the third day of work for the 17-year-old immigrant from Oaxaca, Mexico. She’d been working more than nine hours, with just one water break, when she collapsed from heat exhaustion at 3:40 p.m.

An hour and a half later, when she finally arrived at an emergency room, her body temperature was 108.4 degrees. For two days her heart stopped and started, then ceased beating completely.

The California Division of Industrial Relations has opened an investigation of the death and her employer, Merced Farm Labor, whose operating permit had already been temporarily suspended by state officials based on past unpaid fines for unheeded heat safety violations, and a permanent revocation could be imminent.

The San Joaquin county coroner determined that heat was the fatal factor, and so Jimenez’s family has filed a civil suit claiming wrongful death. The district attorney and attorney general have also opened investigations.

“We’re hoping to send a signal to farmers that you don’t just hire a labor contractor because it’s the lowest bid,” Robert Perez, the lead attorney on the case, told the Guardian. “We think farmers, when they hire a labor contractor, should check them out.”

But activists connected to the case want to send the message even further, to stores like Trader Joe’s that market products made with cheap or exploited agricultural labor.

Merced Farm Labor was subcontracted by West Coast Grape Farming, whose president, Fred Franzia, also owns Bronco Winery, makers of Charles Shaw wine — also known as Trader Joe’s cheap and wildly popular “Two-Buck Chuck.” Approximately 72 million bottles of the $2 wine are sold each year, exclusively at Trader Joe’s.

United Farm Workers, responding to Jimenez’s death, have asked supporters to fire off letters to Trader Joe’s requesting the company “implement a corporate policy to ensure that its your suppliers are not violating the law by failing to provide basic protections such as cold water, shade, and clean bathrooms.”

So far reaction has been swift and significant. “We always get a big volume of response because our Listserv is very socially conscious,” said Jocelyn Sherman, UFW’s director of Internet communications. “But for this we’ve gotten an overwhelming volume of response. It’s the situation. People need something to be done.”

Sherman estimates as many as 15,000 e-mails have been sent from UFW supporters to Trader Joe’s, whose spokesperson, Alison Mochizuki, told us the ire has been misplaced: “The unfortunate and tragic death of Maria Jimenez highlights issues and concerns facing all agricultural industries across America. Maria Jimenez was employed by an independent contractor working in an independent vineyard. The vineyard supplies many wineries, but was not supplying grapes for Charles Shaw. The company employing the young farm worker has no more of a relation to Trader Joe’s than they do to any other wine retailer or restaurant.”

However, UFW asserts that subcontracting is the historic artful dodge of many a vineyard, and a vendor like Trader Joe’s, which serves a progressive community, ought to exert its clout on these issues.

“Lovingly nicknamed ‘Two-Buck Chuck’ by a member of the wine press, these California wines have become something of a phenomenon in the wine world, and in our stores,” trumpets Trader Joe’s Web site. “Contrary to many an urban legend, these super-value wines began as the result of an oversupply of wine and a great relationship with a valued supplier.”

“You say you have a great relationship with this supplier,” Sherman responded. “Use this great relationship to protect workers.”

A spokesperson for Franzia told the Guardian that the company had no comment. Mochizuki said Trader Joe’s — which has 62 stores in Northern California — is committed to protecting workers: “Our vendors have a strong record of providing safe and healthy work environments and we will continue to make certain that our vendors are meeting if not exceeding government standards throughout all aspects of their businesses.”

Originally published July 9, 2008 in the San Francisco Bay Guardian