Frank Bardacke

It was no small feat.
Ten years ago, a small group of
cannery workers struck for better wages... and won.


The Stubborn Thousand

A Community of Strikers

The Workers, United

Frank Bardacke

It was no small feat. Ten years ago, a small group of cannery workers struck for better wages... and won.

Introduction by John Speyer

The strike at Watsonville Canning came at a time when unions were beginning to lose favor in the eyes of the U.S. government and populace. Deregulation was the catch phrase, and the air traffic controllers' strike was broken by the president, sending a strong anti-union message to the working class and progressive communities.

The 18-month holdout took a great economic toll on the Watsonville workers, who struggled to feed their families on minimal incomes. But for the workers and the town, the results were well worth the long struggle. In the end, the Latino work force not only gained job security and benefits, but stronger political representation and social respect. "It was a deep lesson in the power of unified action," says author Frank Bardacke.

The strike empowered the Latino community's political redistricting battle, which went to the Supreme Court. The Court's decision on behalf of Watsonville's 60 percent ethnic majority allowed, for the first time, a Latino to be elected to the Watsonville City Council.

However, in the last ten years, cutthroat market policies have taken their economic toll on Watsonville. Of the eight canneries that once made the town the "Frozen Food Capital of the World," there are three left; of those, only one is locally owned. The rest have relocated, primarily to take advantage of Mexico's exploitative minimum wage and lax environmental regulations.

In commemoration of Watsonville Canning's "stubborn thousand" and the community's solidarity, El Andar presents a look at the historical strike of 1985-1987. Bardacke's analysis is excerpted from a piece written shortly after the union's settlement with Watsonville Canning. The accompanying pieces focus on current labor struggles among Mexico City bus drivers and Los Angeles janitors.

With the era of charismatic union leaders over, union support continuing to ebb, and NAFTA's economic free-for-all gaining momentum, the question must be addressed: Are unions still a viable means of protecting the rights of workers who are traditionally underrepresented in the work force?


The Stubborn Thousand

Over the eighteen months of the strike, not one of the 1,000 Watsonville Canning strikers returned to work. This incredible unity, maintained with utter determination, was the key to the strikers' ultimate victory.

During the almost two-year Watsonville battle, several other large strikes broke out in northern California, among winery workers, TWA flight attendants, and Kaiser Hospital workers. In each case the strike was defeated after 20 to 50 per cent of workers returned to work. Even in the historic Hormel strike 200 to 300 strikers scabbed, allowing management to continue production and providing the UFCW international with a base in Austin and an excuse for disavowing the strike. The Teamster international had no such opening in Watsonville.

Strike defections are not just questions of morale. When a company can win back a significant minority of its experienced workers, those workers and raw scabs can restore production to a high enough level to wear down a strike. Throughout the strike at Watsonville Canning, however, the company could not run its polybag machines, its hemus automatic weighing machines, its automatic fillers, closers and wrappers. The whole packaging operation was a shambles, forcing the company to pack by hand or to bulk pack and send its product to other companies to be repacked. Consider what this means. Bombarded by an ideology of robots and computers, by our supposed transformation into a nation of service workers, we forget that people are still necessary to produce things. The machines inside factories do not run themselves. Skilled, experienced people set them up, adjust them and fix them when they break down. Moreover, there are no exact directions about how to fix these machines. The mechanics, over time, learn their individual quirks, ignore the official adjusting screw on top and bang the machine in just the right spot to keep it going. This knowledge is hardly ever 'shared' with supervisory personnel. The workers guard it jealously. Besides, the supervisors' job is not to learn how the machinery works, but to have the mechanics keep it working. When all the Wats Can mechanics went on strike, the supervisors, management personnel and even out-of-town experts could not get the plant into good working order.

Nor were the women easy to replace. With help, a new recruit can become an average broccoli trimmer in a couple of weeks, among an experienced crew ready both to teach and to cover for a beginner's mistakes. Just being able to move your hands skillfully and quickly is only a small part of the job. What's tough is getting there every day, standing on the hard, often wet concrete for eight- to twelve-hour shifts, putting up with the deafening noise, the endless movement of the product on the belt, the constant pressure from the floorladies and the chicken-shit company rules. All that is bad enough in ordinary times, for what used to be the basic wage of $6.66 an hour plus medical benefits and a week's paid vacation. But when you also have to be bused in with police escort, or return to the parking lot and find your car with four punctured tires, and when you make only $5.05 an hour with no benefits and no job security, the job becomes a poor deal indeed.

Typically, scabs would work for a few weeks and quit. Over the months of the strike the company was never able to recruit enough steady scab workers. Wells Fargo had been willing to finance Wats Can's attempt to bust the union, but not even the tenth biggest bank in the U.S. and one of the fastest growing financial institutions in the world could save Wats Can from the simple truth that it needed much of its regular workforce to make the plant run. The refusal to scab was made at great sacrifice by most workers. Not only did people lose their weekly checks (for most workers around $250 in mid-season) but unemployment benefits ended, women had their AFDC checks taken away, and only a few people got food stamps or other welfare. Times were especially hard for the single mothers-an incredible 40 per cent of the strikers-and for the many families where both parents were oh strike. People had to get by on the $55-a-week strike benefits, fortnightly food giveaways, the local food bank and other informal help from family, friends and community.

Hundreds lost whatever savings they had; scores lost their homes or whatever else they were buying on time, like furniture and cars. Families were forced to double up or even treble up in what had already been crowded conditions. Some left town altogether, and a few lived out of their cars or trucks. Many took other jobs, while they continued to picket at night or on the weekends. Most people found part-time work in the fields: men in the apple orchards in the fall of 1985 and 1986, both men and women in the strawberries and bush berries in the spring and summer of 1986. Many women were retrained to be nurses' aides; some made the trek to Santa Cruz or San José to work at low-paying jobs in the electronics industry; and in the fall of 1986 many got work in the other frozen food plants in town.

No striker scabbed. Several hundred maintained the picket line; you had to do picket duty or other strike work to collect the $55. Anywhere from fifty to several hundred people attended strategy meetings where they argued over the direction of the strike. And almost everyone attended rallies and demonstrations of strikers and their supporters on several occasions.


A Community of Strikers

Primary to understanding this remarkable unity is Watsonville's small town community and people's consciousness of themselves as Mexican workers. Unlike the winery workers, flight attendants, hospital workers or other big city workers, the frozen food workers all lived and worked in the same community, went to the same churches, had children in the same schools, played and watched soccer games in the same parks. Large numbers of strikers were actually related to each other, members of the same extended families. The extended families were crucial. Women who found other jobs left their pre-school children on the picket line with one of their comadres who picketed during the day.... Families were able to help one another (even move in with one another) because they already had close relations and were used to a level of cooperation practically forgotten in metropolitan Anglo culture.

"At least we learned how to survive," was a common remark by the strikers, as it became clear that Wats Can might never sign a contract. But people already knew how to survive. The rank-and-file food committee, started in the early days of the strike with just the slightest nudge from TDU, not only organized the twice-monthly food giveaways with magnificent efficiency, but provided scores of meals for hundreds and sometimes thousands of strikers and supporters. Nobody had to teach them how to do that. Most women had been feeding large groups of people for a long time.

During the strike the community became even tighter. "We found each other" was another frequent observation. People who had worked together for years, developing only casual friendships, now had to rely on one another to survive. Along with the hardships, the increased drinking, and the families which broke under the pressure, there developed deep friendships rooted in mutual need and obligation. And Watsonville responded. Churches, school teachers, some small businesses and landlords provided food and material necessities, as well as an atmosphere of solidarity. Many people were allowed to delay rent payments, others bought on credit at small grocery stores, and many merchants refused to cash scab checks. So many turkeys were donated by the community in the 1985 Thanksgiving turkey drive that the food committee had enough frozen turkeys left over to serve turkey enchiladas at strike events months later.

One Chicano mechanic I know explained why he didn't go back to work. He was not an active striker. Soon after the strike began he got a job as a mechanic in an apple shed where he made less money and worked only a few months a year. In June 1986 his old supervisor called him up and asked him to come back to work. He, like all other mechanics, was offered a bonus, a wage above the official offer of $12.31, and a guarantee that his family would be protected. I asked him why he didn't accept.

"Do you think I should go back?" He asked unbelievingly.

"No. I just want to know why you don't."

He gave the question some thought.

"There is no way for a striker to cross that picket line and live in Watsonville."

"Do you mean that you are afraid that people would attack you? Shoot up your home or throw rocks at your kids or something?"

"No. I don't think anybody would hurt me. But I couldn't go anywhere in town with my head up, on the chance that I might have to look some striker in the eye. I couldn't come to this Y, I couldn't shop at the grocery store, I couldn't go to the bingo game. For the rest of my life I would be the mechanic who betrayed my people. No money is worth that. I will go back to work Watsonville Canning with everybody else or not all."

In Watsonville it was Mexican women, documented and undocumented, who emerged from the obscurity of the frozen food plants and took center stage. It was their solidarity which was primarily responsible for all that was won. The question remains how far that solidarity can be extended. Will it break through next time to their sisters, brothers and husbands who work in the fields of Salinas? Will it soon reach their compatriots in the broccoli fields and frozen food plants of Gunajuato, Mexico? Does the struggle of Latino workers in the Southwest, coupled with revolutionary movements in the Caribbean, promise to make the words 'workers of the world unite' more than just a slogan at the end of an essay?

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