18-Month Strike at Food Plant May End

Times Staff Writer

A tentative settlement was reached in a bitter 18-month strike by 1,000 workers against a Watsonville frozen vegetable plant Tuesday, just one day after a group of local growers bought control of the insolvent operation.

"This settlement makes labor history," Chuck Mack, an official of the Teamsters Union, told a press conference here. "As far as we know, there is not a longer active labor dispute in the country."

The Santa Cruz County walkout had become a rallying point for labor and minority activists after the plant's former owner unilaterally lowered the base pay of workers--most of them Latino women--to $4.75 an hour from $6.66 and slashed medical, pension and other benefits.

The new three-year contract, which is expected to be ratified by members of Teamsters Local 912 at a meeting Friday, provides for a base wage of $5.85 an hour, Teamsters official Alex Ybarrolaza said.

The new pact also provides incentives for boosting productivity and other concessions sought by the plant's new owner, Norcal Frozen Foods Inc.

The plant, formerly known as Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods Inc., processes broccoli, cauliflower, spinach, green beans and Brussels sprouts for Birds Eye and many supermarket chains' private labels.

The inexorable press of the harvest provided impetus for the change in plant ownership and rapid labor settlement.

"We have a lot of product in the ground that needs to be handled," said David L. Gill, 36, a King City rancher who is president of Norcal.

"Without the plant, we have no outlet for our products," added Gill, who with the assistance of Wells Fargo Bank put together a group of 14 area growers to buy the plant.

Wells Fargo last week began foreclosure procedures against the plant, which has been idle since December. Like Wells Fargo, most of the new owners were owed money by the plant when it closed.

Despite the new labor pact, the success of the venture is not guaranteed. California's frozen vegetable industry faces an influx of cheap product from Mexico and Guatemala, where processing workers are paid $2.30 a day or less.

By some estimates, imports account for nearly 25% of U.S. frozen vegetable consumption. Gill said the domestic industry plans to lobby for restrictions on imports. "In the short range, I'm looking forward to getting the plant running," Gill said. "Long range, we've got to have a political solution."

Initially, many of the 1,000 strikers may be disappointed. The plant is scheduled to reopen Monday with just 65 workers, and it will take months before the plant resumes full operation.

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