The Long Battle of Watsonville

Frank Bardacke

WATSONVILLE, CALIFORNIA is the frozen food capital of the world. The work force is predominantly Mexican and Chicano, with typically the men working in the fields and the women in the canneries. In a small town like Watsonville, with a population of less than 25,000, the five-month long cannery workers’ strike is a com­ munity strike.

The recent negotiated settlement with Richard Shaw Company, one of the two big frozen food plants (usually simply called “the canneries”) which were being struck by Teamsters Local 912, follows the national pattern of con­ cession bargaining. It lowers wages nearly 17 percent – to $5.85 an hour, cutting benefits to the bone. However, the strike continues at Watsonville Canning, and, whatever the outcome, the fight waged by the workers will have repercussions throughout the 100,000 Teamster­organized California cannery workers.

The following interview with Frank Bardacke was conducted by Larry Cooperman and Sheila Jordan in Watsonville. Frank was a founding member of the local chapter of Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU). Now teaching in an adult school, he worked for several years as a lumper at a number of the local canneries. For the past several months, he has been playing a prominent role as a community supporter.

Against the Current: How is the fact that women are the majority of strikers reflected in the strike?

Frank Bardacke: Well, of the 1,700 workers on strike, 1,300 are women, with forty percent of them being single parents. The women tend to be the line workers, the ones making the lowest wages. They also tend to be seasonal workers. As seasonal workers they get an inferior benefit package. You can work in the canneries for twenty years before you have regular seniority, which entitles you to full benefits.

Traditional union politics, prior to the strike, were dominated by men, even though they were only about fifteen percent of the workforce. It was one of the real weaknesses of TDU that, even though it had women around it, it was primarily male-led.

It became clear early in the strike that some of the most militant, conscious workers were women. They are the most faithful picketers; they organized the food committee — which was perhaps the most impressive of all the rank-and-file committees, distributing food to over a thousand strikers on a regular basis every two weeks. And they also got involved in conventional political ways: women were elected to the strike committee, they ran for union office and they became regular speakers at strike rallies.

ATC: How did the strike begin?

FB: On Friday, September 6, Watsonville Canning announced that, starting Monday, the 9th, wages would be lowered to $4.25 an hour, down from $6.66.

Three years before the workers had twice turned down a contract that left them 40 cents an hour behind everyone else in the industry. They only approved the 1982 contract after the union leaders had stalled for a month, letting them know that they would not do anything to help win the strike.

But when people heard about the 1985 unilateral cut, the sentiment to walk was so great that Richard King, secretary-treasurer of Local 912, had no choice but to call a strike. King, who is tied to the Watsonville frozen food industry by family connections, was forced to go along. Previously, the contract at Shaw’s had expired and the membership gave its vote to strike. Their wages had been cut back and they had been pressuring the union to go out on strike. The Watsonville Cannery workers had also authorized a strike, but King kept stalling, saying that the International hadn’t cleared the action.

During that period, the TDU chapter was trying to organize people to put pressure on the local to get strike authorization from the International. Every day after work, scores of people-and sometimes hundreds-would go down to the union hall to badger the officials.

ATC: What did King do once the strike had been called?

FB: Right after the walkout, King was still trying very hard to sell out the strike. Representatives of the International were in town and secret negotiations with the company were taking place. But the companies were not in any mood to go for a halfway sellout nor were the workers in any mood to allow one. So King’s hands were tied.

At the same time, Litler, Mendelson & Tichey — the biggest labor-busting law firm in the West, and representing Watsonville Cannning – -had secured a court injunction limiting the number of strike supporters and picketers that could be close to the plant to six at each gate. Later, when we started massing people across the street, the courts ruled that only seven people supporting the strike could be across the street, and that no other strikers or supporters could be within one hundred yards of the cannery.

The union officials told people to obey the letter of the law. From the beginning, the officials accepted the rules of the game established by the court, the bosses, the police and the city officials. Those rules, in effect, outlawed mass picketing, the seeking of sympathy strikes from the farmworkers and using the support strikers had in the community to actually physically stop the scabs from crossing the lines.

All of those actions are illegal. And yet all of those things were absolutely necessary to have a chance to win the strike. Winning was against the law.

ATC:What was the response to the injunction?

FB: The officials did everything they could to make the workers obey the injunction. The officials even went beyond the injunction in limiting the strike. They refused to support workers who went to the city council-ZOO yards from the union office-to complain about police actions. They made no attempt to get outside support for the strike, even within their own Teamster Joint Council. In the beginning TDU was pushing the idea of reaching out for support, going to other areas and getting food and money.

In the midst of this struggle, it just so happened that there was a caravan of people going from Berkeley to a University of California Regents’ meeting in Los Angeles, where they were going to demonstrate in favor of divestment from South Africa. People from TDU and the Watsonville Strike Support Committee met them when they stopped in Santa Cruz. The divestment caravan decided to stop in Watsonville. And when they arrived they were greeted enthusiastically by the picketers.

As a result, the strikers took up the idea of making a general call for people to come into town in order to break the injunction. Strikers mobilized for the next union meeting and the motion for a Solidarity Day-where people from all over California would be invited-passed unanimously. The union leadership was so discredited and rank-and-file leaders had so much authority that, without waiting to see what the officials would do, we put out the leaflets ourselves. At the bot­ tom we wrote “officially endorsed by the membership of Local 912.”

ATC: What did the rally accomplish?

FB: Solidarity Day was a tremendous success. Even though Teamsters Joint Council 7 had not endorsed it because of King’s opposition, 3,000 people rallied. Many were from the local community, but four busloads made the two-hour trek from the San Francisco Bay Area, even though Bay Area labor officials insisted that the Joint Council’s refusal to endorse the rally tied their hands.

In some ways the most important thing about the rally was the farmworker turnout and the UFW flags. It showed that the battle between the Teamster hierarchy and the UFW was never a battle between Teamster-organized workers and UFW workers. And it gave the promise that the farmworkers harvesting the broccoli and cauliflower processed in the struck plants might strike in solidarity.

Given the energy generated by the first Solidarity Day, a general meeting of all strikers was called. The strikers• elected their own representative strike committee, which at that time had the political authority to lead the strike.

The canneries had not been able to recruit scabs from Watsonville, but they were able to bring them in from Salinas, a half-hour’s drive away. These scabs were escorted the police through the line. Following the election strike committee, more people began to go to Salinas to try to stop the scabs — and they were often successful.

After the second Solidarity Day called by the Strike Committee mobilized another 2,000 supporters, the Council entered the picture, working with Sergio Lopez, the only Spanish-speaking paid official of Local 912, but one who had s King’s shield. He was running for secretary-treasurer and trying hard to keep up with the strike’s development. Before the first two Solidarity Days, he called up strikers and told them not to attend. Then he showed up himself at the massive rallies and managed to get the microphone and endorsed the demonstration!

Working with Sergio the Joint Council called its Solidarity Day, and many officials from the Bay Area labor movement attended.

With the backing of the Joint Council Sergio was able to act more independently of King-in fact King withdrew from strike activity. But then Lopez withdrew his support from the growing movement to stop the scabs in Salinas.

At the same time the judge extended the injunction to cover Salinas. The police attacked those who were stopping scabs and there were heavy penalties for those arrested.

TDU was also under attack. One of their leaders, Jose Lopez, was arrested whenever he appeared at a demonstration. TDU was blamed by the bosses for several fires at the canneries, and for all the strike violence.

Despite years of work, TDU was not deeply enough embedded in the rank and file to survive these attacks. Among the strike committee and many rank and filers, the idea developed, “neither the officials not TDU.” The strike committee, hoping to find a non-existent middle way, bogged down and the strike settled into a stalemate.

It was during the stalemate, while a few hundred scabs worked inside the canneries — all from out of town — that the rank and file began to discuss the upcoming union elections. But, the rank and file was divided enough on questions of how to proceed that they could not form a united slate to run against the old regime. There were two separate slates, others running as individuals. In the atmosphere of the election, people turned to attacking each other. And the number of scabs grew.

When Sergio took office as secretary-treasurer after the elections, it was during the winter period. Ordinarily the plants shut down. But there was extended good weather, and Watsonville Canning, which has deeper pockets than Shaw’s, continued to run a lot of broccoli.

In January, for the first time, there were people from the community who scabbed. None of the strikers crossed over, but it was a big departure to actually have Watsonville residents crossing the lines.

In this context, Shaw began to seriously negotiate and both the company and the new union officials cal1ed for a period of “peace” so that the negotiations could proceed. They never got that, but they did get a slowdown of strike activity.

ATC: Why did the Shaw workers accept a bad contract?

FB: Well, they were sold the contract by the new “reform” leadership. They would never have bought that contract from the old, corrupt leadership. But the “reform” leaders just as much as the old corrupt leaders accepted the bosses’ rules on how to conduct the strike. Following those rules, there was no way they could win. So from their point of view, the best thing to do was maintain a union contract of any kind whatsoever. They really felt that this contract was the best they could get.

They called the meeting that ratified it on a day-and-a- half’s notice. Instead of a written copy of the contract, there was a summary which disguised its worst features. People were called selectively to come to the ratification meeting. And, in fact, less than half the strikers voted. Insufficient time was allotted for discussion. Workers from the other canneries who were present at the meeting, urging a no vote were forced from the hall.

Nevertheless, the fact is that the Shaw workers at the meeting voted two-to-one to accept the contract. They had been on strike five months. And they’d concluded (along with the officials) that the strike couldn’t be won. As one striker told me, “How the hell are we going to stop the scabs in the next two weeks if we haven’t been able to stop them for the last five months?”

One of the worst aspects of the sellout is that it took place just as the new season was about to begin. People had managed to last through the winter and were preparing for a new battle. Just before the new battle, the fight was called off.

ATC: What is the impact of the settlement with Shaw on the other strikers?

FB: At the ratification meeting there were 600 workers from the other plants. These workers were disappointed, angry, and determined not to accept a similar contract at Watsonville Canning. Previous to the vote, a stop-the­ scabs week had been planned for the next week. The strikers went out and built the action with greater determination. The combination of worker anger and a tougher police strategy led to two days of serious rioting. This included the destruction of company trucks, security vehicles, and the breaking of windows in downtown Watsonville. Both union officials and the police blamed the riot on communists, outside agitators and members of the Watsonville Strike Support Committee.

ATC: What will be the strike’s next phase?

FB: The rioting announced to the cannery and to the other frozen food workers in town whose contract expires on June 31 — and who can expect their wages to fall at least to $5.85 from the $7.06 they are currently making-that the Watsonville Canning is not over. Several hundred strikers stand ready to wage a militant strike. But it is unclear what form the struggle will take, given the contract forced on the Shaw workers.

The Watsonville Canning workers continue to maintain their 24-hour picket line, to hold rallies and marches in the face of severe police repression, to reach out to workers in Salinas, and in the fields. They are depending on broad support and are preparing themselves so that the kind of contract that was adopted at Shaw’s will never pass at their union meeting.

The February 22nd march ended with people from the Bay Area bringing down tons of food and thousands of dollars to support the strike. But during the rally alone, fifteen strikers and supporters were arrested near the frozen food plant. At the present time the company is refusing to negotiate. They seem to be waiting until September 9, when they can legally hold a decertification election. Having been wrong often enough during the course of the strike, I hesitate to predict what’s going to happen, other than to say the strike continues and needs support from workers everywhere.

ATC: Could you describe the efforts made by the Watsonville community to give material and political support to the strikers?

FB: The attack on the workers was seen as a direct attack on the community, because the frozen food workers are such a prominent part of the economy. The Watsonville Canning’s slashing of wages by 43 percent affected the entire local economy. Also the attack was specifically seen as an attack on the Mexican/Chicano community.

In the 1930s, a basic tactic California growers and food processors used when workers called a strike was to run the Mexican workers out of town. But it couldn’t work fifty years later because the Mexican community is too large and too well-integrated. Any attempt to run people out of town would mean open warfare.

This is especially true in Watsonville. When “Operation Jobs” happened a few years ago, the Immigration and Naturalization Service (INS) never raided Watsonville. They raided towns around here, but never this town. The Watsonville Left-primarily composed of Chicano social service workers, some teachers and some people who had been in Local 912-together with TDU initiated several successful community-wide fights, including some which politically isolated the border patrol, and led to the formation of a border patrol community review board.

In any strike where Mexicans are involved, the employer routinely calls “La Migra.” But the border patrol has never raided the picket lines, even though there are many undocumented workers on strike. As the head of the local INS office explained it, they had no intention of raiding the picket line because “we would only cause more trouble.” This is the largest strike involving Mexicans workers in California where there have been no border patrol raids.

But in a way, this strike is like the Colorado mining strikes before the First World War—where it’s the whole town versus the boss. The only way for the strike to be defeated is through the application of an external police power.

Afterward: On Saturday, February 22 Frank Bardacke had his car stopped by a Watsonville patrol car. He was in­ formed by the police that a warrant had been issued for his arrest for violating an order to disperse the previous Monday and for having violated the court in­ junction prohibiting strike supporters from being within 100 yards of Watsonville Canning. Eleven police assisted in the arrest, and Frank was thrown against the side of a car injuring his ribs. “If I had to work physically, I couldn’t,” Frank says, “but luckily, or perhaps unluckily, they didn’t hit me in the jaw, so I was able to keep teaching, and to answer these ques­tions.”

March-April 1986, ATC 2

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