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Seeds of Discontent Grow in Watsonville

TIMES STAFF WRITER

The spring harvest imparts a frenzied air of prosperity to the Pajaro Valley, one of the world’s premier agricultural belts. Cooled by a breeze from the nearby Monterey Bay, legions of field hands busily pluck berries, vegetables and flowers in a multihued tableau of pastoral bounty.

But despite the abundance, this historic farm town--once the self-proclaimed “Frozen Food Capital of the World” and long a hotbed of labor militancy--is mired in a spiraling economic decline.

Battered by competition from Mexico, adjusting uneasily to a rapid influx of impoverished Mexican immigrants whose needs differ from those of longtime Latino residents, and still feeling the aftermath of the 1989 Loma Prieta earthquake, this city of 34,000 suffers from a litany of big-city woes: unemployment that regularly tops 20%, substandard housing, overcrowded schools and inadequate public services.

In many ways, the plight of Watsonville, about 90 miles south of San Francisco, provides a cautionary tale about the impacts on a community of free trade and corporate restructuring. The city’s pressing social concerns have in turn laid bare a bitter clash of visions about the future, revealing a contentious dispute that resonates elsewhere in California’s farmlands. From San Diego County to Sonoma, the suburbanization of California’s agricultural terrain has generated similar controversy.

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At stake in Watsonville, many say, is whether the town will retain its agricultural character or become another sprawling bedroom community for the Silicon Valley--just across the redwood-studded Santa Cruz Mountains.

Watsonville officials, saying their compact, 5.9-square-mile city is bursting at the seams, are pushing to expand and make way for shopping malls, housing tracts, light manufacturing--all hallmarks of suburban well-being.

“We need land to attract industry, generate jobs and build new housing,” said Steven M. Salomon, the Watsonville city manager who is leading the pro-development charge.

Fiercely resisting that blueprint is a vocal coalition of environmentalists, small-business people and others who see it as a repudiation of the city’s farm-town essence and a threat to nearby, wildlife-rich wetlands.

“Our greatest resource is agricultural land, and we have to build a local economy without paving over our land in the unrealistic hope of becoming another Palo Alto or San Jose,” said Frank Bardacke, a longtime Watsonville schoolteacher and writer.

A major undercurrent in the dispute involves Watsonville’s rapid shift in recent years to a population more than 60% Latino, a demographic metamorphosis mirrored in agricultural communities statewide.

A 1989 federal court ruling in a voting rights lawsuit expanded political power in this town long dominated by whites who, activists say, regularly used threats of raids from la migra (the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service) to keep Latinos in line.

Today, the three Latino members on a City Council of seven are generally considered pro-development.

“I think some of these people who criticize us don’t want Watsonville to prosper,” said Councilman Tony Campos, a real estate broker and lifelong resident. “We have to start looking out for the silent majority of Watsonville.”

Opponents contend that the official approach will only enrich real estate interests while providing few secure, well-paying jobs and housing mostly for commuters from the Silicon Valley. Instead, they are urging officials to pursue alternatives to create better-paying jobs in food processing and other agricultural-related enterprises.

Neighboring Salinas, the critics note, has managed to corner the market on the fresh-cut, bagged lettuce now so popular in groceries. That burgeoning industry has created about 4,000 mostly unionized jobs in recent years.

“We should be working on maintaining our agricultural base, but fighting the poverty wages we have now,” said Olga Diaz, part of a Latino human rights group battling the city’s strategy.

But Watsonville officials insist that labor unions, not local government, should push for higher wages.

“Beggars can’t be choosy in the job world,” said Charles D. Eadie, assistant city planning director.

Although the stately, early-century office structures and Victorian residences that dot Watsonville’s streets attest to an earlier era of relative affluence for some, the city has never meant unalloyed prosperity for the successive waves of immigrants from Europe, Asia and Mexico who came to work in the Pajaro Valley.

More than half a century ago, John Steinbeck used Watsonville as the model for his novel “In Dubious Battle,” in which desperate apple pickers stage an ill-fated strike. Watsonville’s combative labor history stretches from Depression-era walkouts of fruit tramps and celebrated United Farm Workers campaigns in the 1970s to the galvanizing frozen food worker strike of 1985-87 that drew national headlines. That pivotal strike and its aftermath say much about the predicament facing the city today.

For a generation, the unionized positions in the frozen-food plants, while involving arduous, assembly line labor and wages of only $6 to $7 an hour, represented a pronounced step up from fieldwork. The jobs processing broccoli, cauliflower and other vegetables enabled workers--mostly female immigrants from Mexico--to assume the mantle of working-class prosperity. They bought homes, took vacations and sent their children to college.

But by the late 1980s, as consumers increasingly opted for fresh vegetables, the frozen food industry was living on borrowed time. Companies such as Green Giant, long a mainstay employer, began relocating remaining operations to Mexico, where agribusiness pays a fraction of U.S. wages.

In the fall of 1985, two of Watsonville’s biggest packers attempted to slash wages and benefits. Workers went on strike.

In an extraordinary show of solidarity, not one of the more than 1,000 strikers crossed the picket lines in the 18-month protest.

Ultimately, the workers emerged triumphant--management failed to break the union--but the victory had a downside. Employees were forced to accept significant wage cuts, and the erosion of frozen vegetable jobs accelerated.

Finally, in 1994, Green Giant, now owned by the London-based conglomerate Grand Metropolitan PLC, shut down its Watsonville operations entirely. That was shortly after the North American Free Trade Agreement went into effect. The fact that those losing their jobs were mostly Mexican immigrants only added a sense of irony.

“We lost our work here so that these giant companies can go and exploit those of us who remained in Mexico,” said Yolanda Navarro, a 40-year-old mother of six who was laid off along with her husband.

Navarro, who has lived in Watsonville for a quarter-century, has yet to find comparable work--a fate shared by many of the estimated 4,000 former freezer house employees who have been unemployed since the 1980s.

Like Navarro, many are approaching middle age, speak little English and, despite extensive government-funded retraining efforts, have few marketable skills fitting Watsonville’s narrow economy.

Most have reared families here and do not want to relocate. Returning to backbreaking work in the fields is not an appealing option.

“We knew we didn’t have much future in the plants, but at least the work was steady, the pay was decent and we didn’t have to kill ourselves under the sun,” said Rita Ramirez, a 22-year packinghouse veteran who was among the 700 or so workers who lost jobs in the most recent shutdown--the closure in February of the Norcal-Crosetti facility, considered unprofitable by its corporate parent, Dean Foods, the Midwestern food giant.

But even as the frozen food giants have left Watsonville, overall employment has surged, in large part due to the rapid expansion of California’s strawberry industry, which involves some of agriculture’s most labor-intensive and poorly compensated work.

Strawberry patches have overrun former apple orchards, drawing a new generation of eager young job seekers from Mexico who are undeterred by the low wages and the stooping required to do the work.

“We barely earn enough to pay our bills,” said strawberry picker Jose Ortiz, 22, who, along with his wife and infant daughter, shares a cramped flat with another young family in a run-down, wood-frame complex catering to field hands.

The housing crunch is only getting worse.

With the lure of fieldwork attracting new multitudes, Watsonville’s population has jumped almost 50% since 1980. Construction of homes and schools has not nearly kept pace, and unrepaired damage from the 1989 earthquake has only worsened the problem.

Bulging classrooms, shabby school grounds and plummeting test scores have prompted residents of neighboring Aptos, an upper middle-class suburb, to seek secession from the Pajaro Valley Unified School District. Outraged Watsonville activists have accused Aptos parents of not wanting their children to mix with Watsonville’s mostly Latino pupils--a charge denied by secession proponents.

To city officials, the solution is obvious. Watsonville must aggressively spur the growth of retail outlets to boost sales tax revenues and encourage construction of affordable housing and industrial tracts.

The city is considering annexing several parcels of agricultural land--along with a major chunk of terrain adjoining coastal wetlands--for assorted developments. Authorities also are seeking to harvest timber in a city-owned watershed parcel in the Santa Cruz Mountains.

To suggest that these limited proposals signal a wholesale abandonment of Watsonville’s agricultural legacy is a gross exaggeration, city officials say.

“We have a situation of economic desperation, and we need to do something,” said Councilman Oscar Rios, who arrived here from El Salvador a decade ago in support of the striking frozen food workers.

While not disputing the grim economic picture, opponents have filed a flurry of lawsuits to stop the city from moving forward. Housing and other projects, they contend, can be built inside Watsonville itself, pointing to such sites as the underutilized airport and the vacancy-plagued downtown.

For Rosa Lopez, one of the laid-off Norcal-Crosetti workers, the debate raging over Watsonville’s future may be healthy, but her concerns are more immediate.

Lacking health insurance since the shutdown, Lopez says her $216 biweekly unemployment checks end next month. A mother of three, she is worried about how to manage the family’s $800 monthly rent and other living expenses. Her husband, disabled in an apple field accident, is a low-wage hand at an assembly plant.

“I want my children to stay in school and succeed, to find something better in life than the fields and the canneries,” Lopez said. “We gave our youth to these companies, and at the end we were just thrown out the door.”


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