Supervisors in the rose fields once waved white flags urging "no union," while the United Farm Workers brandished red-and-black banners advocating dignity, respect and better benefits.
These days, rose grower Bear Creek Corp. and its 1,000 laborers are working together - to the point that they have partnered to create a rose dedicated to the memory of Cesar Chavez, the late champion of farmworker rights.
The new flower is named for Chavez, the UFW founder who died in 1993 and has his own California state holiday, which will be observed Monday. Ten percent of sales from the velvety, bright red rose are going to the Cesar E. Chavez Foundation, a nonprofit organization that educates people about Chavez's life and work.
"Never have they named a rose after a Latino figure," said Arturo Rodriguez, UFW president and Chavez's son-in-law.
The spirit of collaboration that led to the Chavez rose took a long time to blossom.
Starting in the 1970s, the union tried to organize workers at the company, which grows roses on 3,000 acres in California's Central Valley. Their efforts finally gained momentum in 1993, as workers became upset by a new incentive system that switched pay from hourly wages to a piece-rate system.
In the months leading up to a 1994 union election, both sides campaigned hard. Supervisors wore "no union" buttons. Workers tuned to a pro-union radio station each morning for instructions on how to show their support, sometimes wearing red-and-black UFW T-shirts to work.
The union won, and three months after the election signed a contract with Bear Creek. Still, relations were strained: in the first year, workers filed 116 grievances.
Bear Creek met with the union in 1996 to discuss the problems, and paid $53,000 to settle the grievances. Slowly, the relationship began to mend.
Under their current contract, workers make $6.75 to $15 an hour, and receive health insurance, pension benefits and up to three weeks vacation plus 10 paid holidays - including Chavez's birthday.
The benefits have allowed Daniel Sanchez, a forklift operator in the company's warehouse, to feel more at ease.
His wife's bronchitis had caused frequent trips to the hospital, including one $300 emergency room visit. "Most of the money I saved went into medical bills for her to see the doctor," said Sanchez, who has worked at the company for 24 years. Now, he said, "I have more security."
Amparo Flores spends her days walking up and down neat rows of 2,000 roses, counting dead plants. She wears a bandanna draped over her head and face and a straw hat to protect her from dust and temperatures that can top 100 degrees. The job has become more difficult since she broke her ankle a few years ago.
Still, she said, "I feel more secure in my work. I feel like when I have a difficult time doing it, I can go to the foreman and ask him for advice. I don't have to fear he's going to retaliate."
For the company, the partnership has resulted in increased productivity and fewer workers compensation claims, said Kyle Burdick, Bear Creek's vice president of human resources. Bear Creek also shares its financial records with the union.
There is "a level of trust now where we're way beyond" past animosities, he said. Now, "it's not 'How do you keep it from the union?' but 'How do you get the union involved?"'
The idea for the Chavez rose came from a union member during a meeting between company management, workers and the union. The company also has a pink rose sold through Bear Creek-owned Jackson & Perkins that is named for Our Lady of Guadalupe, Mexico's patron saint.
The fact that the company followed through with the Chavez idea shows workers are getting something the labor leader always wanted, Rodriguez said. "They have a voice there," he said.
By Deborah Kong