Canning Workers’ Bitter Strike Devastates Lives, Economy of Watsonville

Times Staff Writer

At 7:30 a.m. they begin gathering in front of the green metal warehouses. An hour later, when the 70-pound boxes of food are handed out, more than 60 people are in line, shivering in the fog and stamping their feet to keep warm.

The food is distributed until noon, but many show up early so they will have time to drive over to the Salinas Valley for a day of vegetable picking. Others want to ensure that they receive a full box of food. Some are just hungry.

Maria Pineda said she had not eaten yet because she did not have enough food in the house for breakfast. She was waiting for the eggs and milk in her food basket.


“The last few days all we’ve had is rice, beans and powdered milk,” said Pineda, a single mother of one. “I’m so far behind on rent I’ve had to borrow money from friends; there’s not much left for food.”

For Pineda and about 1,000 other striking production workers at Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Co., the food boxes, distributed twice a month by Teamsters Local 912, and $55 a week in strike pay provide the slim margin necessary for survival.

The strike has lasted more than a year and has devastated this small agricultural town of 25,000, southeast of Santa Cruz. One out of every seven people is a striker or a dependent of one, social service agencies say. The dispute over wages and benefits has been particularly acrimonious and there have been numerous incidents of violence and 150 arrests.

Sales are down in many of the city’s businesses and the strike has cost Watsonville, in lost retail sales and in overtime paid to police, more than $1 million, according to city officials.

The strike also has become a rallying point for the Bay Area labor movement and minority activists. Most of the members of Local 912 are Latino women and a third of them are single mothers. They are pitted against a white-owned company and a town that is more than half Latino, but whose mayor, fire and police chiefs and City Council are all white. Jesse Jackson spoke at a recent rally and a number of Bay Area organizations have donated money and protested with the strikers.

The production workers walked off the job Sept. 9, 1985, three months after their contract expired, when the company arbitrarily lowered the base pay from $6.66 an hour to $4.75 an hour and cut numerous medical, pension and seniority benefits, union officials said. Teamster officials claim that the company is trying to break the union. But so far not one person has crossed the picket line to return to work.

There are no indications that the stalemate will be broken soon. After the workers walked off the job, Watsonville Canning hired replacements. The company’s last proposal was made in October.

“I could barely make it getting $6.66 an hour; how am I going to survive on $4.75?” said Angie Elizalde, a single mother of four, who was picketing outside the plant. “I’ve worked for that company 16 years and to get treated like this isn’t right. We’re angry and refuse to give in.”

But the resolve of the workers has come at a tremendous cost. Dozens of families have been evicted and several have lost their homes, social service agencies say. Numerous strikers have had to send their children to relatives or foster homes. Incidents of alcoholism and family violence have increased tremendously, said Shirley Castillo, director of the Fenix Family Alcoholism Service Center.

About 400 people--most of them strikers--contacted her agency for help during the last year, double the number from the previous year. The need has been so great, many local charitable organizations have run out of funds. Catholic Social Services in Watsonville has spent $30,000 during the past year on the strikers and now has only $210 left in its emergency housing fund.

Eduardo Arderi, a counselor at the Family Service Assn., said that, after a year without a job, many of the strikers have become desperate. One client turned to prostitution to support her four children, he said, and two other single mothers also are considering working on the streets.

“The woman had to feed her four kids and she couldn’t,” Arderi said. “It’s an economic reality; she didn’t know any other way out. The whole thing is overwhelming. I see families who have to put their kids in foster homes because they can’t support them--it tears them up to visit their kids every eight days.

“Families are falling apart; neighborhoods are falling apart. It really hurts me and I start doubting my own abilities to help. Because all I can do is talk to them. I can’t feed them.”

Mort Console, owner of Conco Corp., the Watsonville-based firm that owns the canning company, refused to comment. But Smiley Verduzco, Conco’s executive vice president, said his company can no longer afford to pay its workers $6.66 an hour because of lean years in the past and “a downward trend in the market.” Increased competition from foreign and out-of-state imports, which have lower labor costs, are threatening the future of California’s frozen food industry, he said.

But Verduzco acknowledged that his firm has shown a 5% increase in business during the past year.

“You probably can’t support a family on $4.75 an hour, but that’s not the point,” Verduzco said. “We’d love to pay them more, but we can’t. Times are too tough for our industry.”

Following Watsonville Canning’s lead, other Bay Area agricultural firms are making similar demands, said Sergio Lopez, secretary-treasurer of Local 912. And two other Watsonville frozen vegetable firms recently negotiated pay cuts with the Teamsters, Lopez said.

The union also accepted wage cuts from four major fruit processors in Watsonville even though the plants were making a profit. Many workers are now reluctant to hold out to maintain wages and benefits after observing the hardships endured by Watsonville canning employees, union officials say.

Watsonville Canning has not raised the $5.05-an-hour offer it made to the union early in the strike and it still maintains that the strike breakers will have first priority on their jobs, even if the labor dispute is settled. Other frozen food companies in the state now pay about $5.85 an hour, well below the $7 an hour they were averaging a year ago.

“This has hurt workers in the food industry throughout California,” Lopez said. “We’re now getting reports that agricultural companies down in Salinas and King City are also trying to implement pay cuts. I have no problem with firms who are having real financial problems doing this. But some companies are just taking advantage of the situation.”

The Watsonville strike probably would not have occurred a decade ago, said Charles Craypo, chairman of the economics department at Notre Dame University and author of “The Economics of Collective Bargaining.” But in today’s anti-union atmosphere, he said, more businesses are demanding concessions from workers and permanently replacing them if they strike.

“Companies today are taking the offensive, doing things to weaken unions and sometimes forcing them into strikes that they can’t win,” Craypo said. “It’s easier for companies to win these kinds of fights today. Public policy, the courts and popular opinion are now against labor. Today, when the economy turns sluggish and imports threaten businesses, some people blame the unions. But what they’re doing is blaming the victim.”

The anti-labor environment has made it difficult to win the strike, said workers at Watsonville Canning. Last fall a Santa Cruz County Superior Court judge issued an injunction prohibiting more than four strikers from congregating at any gate at Watsonville Canning. And the city had refused to allow strikers parade or rally permits because they did not have sufficient liability insurance. The city eventually changed its policy after being challenged by the union.

“The city’s white power structure has lined up on one side and the strikers on the other,” said Mike Herald, the head of Watsonville Parish Communities, a group of nine area churches that provide charitable services and have assisted striking families. “The court order took away the most traditional tool used by striking workers. If a lot of workers can’t line up by gates and they can’t discourage drivers from bringing the product in and out of the company, then they don’t have much leverage in a strike.”

A key issue of contention in the strike concerns the company’s financial statements.

The union is aware of the difficulties facing the industry and is willing to make concessions to companies “who open their books and are honest with us,” said Teamster Local 912 President Leon Ellis. As an example, he said, Richard Shaw Frozen Foods showed its financial statements to the Teamsters and proved that it was losing money. The union then accepted pay cuts of $1.21 an hour and the workers, who had gone on strike at the same time as the Watsonville Canning employees, returned to work in February.

But, Ellis said, Watsonville Canning, the largest frozen food plant of its kind in the world, has refused to open its books on the same terms as Shaw Frozen Foods.

The company has offered to release its financial statement only if union negotiators agree to pay a $500,000 fine for disclosing any information, Verduzco said.

“I don’t trust those hoodlums; they want to run this company out of business,” Verduzco said. “We are a privately held corporation. Our financial statements are our financial statements; they don’t belong to the people.”

The strike has been so divisive partly because it was so unexpected. For decades, residents of Watsonville have packed cauliflower, Brussels sprouts, broccoli and other vegetables grown in the nearby Salinas Valley or along the foggy Monterey County coast. In the 1930s and 1940s, most of the vegetables were canned, but as a result of technological advances in the 1950s, companies began freezing the product.

The canneries and packing houses represented a step up for the migrant field workers in the area, a source of year-round employment, medical benefits and security. Relations between workers and management always were excellent and the canneries were regarded as paternalistic employers. Richard King, the past president of Local 912 who retired last year, used to drink and play poker with the management at the cannery, union leaders say.

Then in 1982 the union agreed to a 40-cent-an-hour wage reduction. Three years later the company asked for more drastic cuts.

The concessions were necessary, Verduzco said, because frozen food companies “have never made a lot of money and are making even less now.” As an example, he said, the consumption in the United States of frozen broccoli--the industry’s biggest single product--dropped by 60 million pounds during the last few years.

The head of the industry’s trade association disagreed with Verduzco’s figures. In the past five years the production of frozen broccoli in the United States has increased by 60 million pounds--from 299 millions pounds to 356--according to Larry Taber, president of the California League of Food Processors. And per capita consumption of all frozen vegetables--including frozen broccoli--has increased slightly since 1980.

But, Taber said, production costs have risen, the amount of frozen broccoli and other vegetables produced outside of the country during the past five years has more than quadrupled and companies have overproduced. All these factors, Taber said, have caused great hardship among frozen food companies.

As a result of industry problems, Verduzco said, Watsonville Canning implemented the wage and benefit reductions several months before the strike. At the time, it also changed working conditions--changes that union officials claim were instituted to force the workers out on strike and break the union.

The women on the line used to trim 14 pieces of broccoli a minute. But shortly before the strike, the company raised the standard to 19. Workers--many of them older women who had been with the company more than 20 years--were given warning slips and then fired if they could not keep up. About 25 workers were fired, union officials say, including one woman for eating a piece of cauliflower she was cutting.

“Eating vegetables on company time is against the rules and they know it,” Verduzco said. “There were work slowdowns before the strike, people trying to force confrontations. So we went back in and looked at what a good broccoli trimmer would cut . . . . We finally said to those (who weren’t working fast enough): ‘Enough is enough. The party’s over.’ ”

Some workers have not limited their criticism to the company and have questioned the union for not doing enough to end the dispute or to make it easier to hold out. While the $55 weekly strike pay has been frozen for five years, Teamsters President Jackie Presser earns $550,000 a year, five to six times the salary of other international union presidents.

During the past three months, the Teamsters have been waging a “corporate campaign” against Watsonville Canning, which involves trying to persuade the company’s creditors and customers to stop doing business with the firm.

But workers say the pressure has come too late and a full consumer boycott should be called immediately. A boycott could be difficult because many of Watsonville Canning’s products are sold under brand names packed by other firms.

Workers have been chastised by the City Council for trying to intimidate the company through violence during the first few months of the strike. Three cars owned by company executives were destroyed, several homes were fire-bombed, and two fires were set on Watsonville Canning property that caused about $1 million worth of damage, a Fire Department spokesman said. And there were numerous confrontations between workers and replacements, police said, but no major injuries resulted from strike-related incidents.

As the strike drags on into it 53rd week, there still is tension every day outside the plant. At the end of each shift, when the replacement workers leave the plant for the parking lot, the epithets of strikers break the afternoon calm of a small town. They shout at their replacements, call them esquiroles (scabs), and spit on the sidewalk as they walk by. The strikebreakers, most of whom drive in from other cities, quickly walk to their cars and avoid the strikers’ gazes.

“We are very desperate,” said Socoro Murillo, waving her picket sign at the strikebreakers. “I owe my landlord a lot of money and have just been evicted, like a lot of others. But we cannot give in. Because if we do all the cannery workers in the area will lose. We are fighting not just for ourselves, but for all of them.”