Strikers in Watsonville feel stronger day by day
By Oscar Rios
The 2,000 striking workers of Watsonville Canning and Richard Shaw, Inc. have been out on strike now since September 9. What is at stake are the gains won through years of hard-fought struggle by mainly Chicano and Mexicano workers.
If the Watsonville strike can be smashed it will be a signal for an orgy of wage and benefit slashing throughout the canning industry. Fighting both the company and a Teamsters union leadership more than willing to accept the cuts, these workers are struggling not only for themselves and their families but also for all workers and La Raza (Latinos) as well. This attack on the Watsonville workers comes at a time when huge companies, backed up by the Reagan administration, are on a vicious drive to force down the living standards of all workers and to smash the unions.
This attack also comes down at a time when the very strategy of these multinational corporations is to increasingly shift much of their operations to the Sunbelt, where two huge oppressed nationalities — the African American and the Chicano peoples — are concentrated. These corporations believe they can extract superprofits with little or no constraints in the Sunbelt because workers there are underpaid, non-unionized and deprived of political power, due to the system of national oppression.
On October 15, 500 strikers met and elected an 11-member leadership committee – a strikers committee -to lead the strike. Enthusiastically, the strikers organized themselves and democratically elected their own leaders in a secret ballot vote. Since that meeting, the Strikers’ Committee has been pulling itself together, planning strategy, leading efforts to keep the scabs out, organizing support throughout northern California and pressuring the Teamsters bureaucracy to give more support to the strike. The Strikers’ Committee has called for another Day of Solidarity on November 3.
On October 23, Richard Shaw, Inc. took part in talks with both union and Strikers’ Committee representatives. This is the first time since the strike began that the company has done this. The day before, union and Strikers’ Committee representatives met again with Watsonville Canning officials.
Unity interviewed four members of the elected Strikers’ Committee: Armando Morales, 23 years at Watsonville Canning; Aurora Trujillo, 2 years working for Richard Shaw, Inc.; Chavelo Moreno, 23 years at Watsonville Canning; and Guillermina Ramirez, 15 years at Watsonville Canning.
(Translated from Spanish.)
Unity: What is the present situation in the negotiations with the cannery owners?
Armando: There are no negotiations right now because the owners refuse to consider any changes in their original proposal. It is not true, as the newspapers have said, that the union is not willing to negotiate. The union has told them they are willing to negotiate if they present a reasonable proposal.
Chavelo: I think the main role the Watsonville (Canning) owner is playing is to divide us, to separate us from the union, in order to eliminate the union completely. He stated in the offer that new hires could decide themselves whether to accept the union or not. He told them they would not have to pay the $13 union dues monthly, and that it would be better to save that money for other expenses. But what that does is to disunite the people, and eventually to kick out the union from his company so he can do what he wants with the people. Even with the union, the company has almost done this anyway.
But what this is doing for us is uniting us more and making us more determined to resolve our own problems by ourselves. We have the support and the help of the San Francisco Bay Area, such as the Local 2 of San Francisco and other unions and friends from there, such as Oscar Rios and Manuel Diaz, who have helped us to organize ourselves. And it makes us feel stronger day by day. So what these two companies have done is to build unity, which is what they had wanted to destroy.
Guillermina: I agree with what the compañero has said. Instead of destroying the union, Richard Shaw and Watsonville have only united us more. The strike is affecting us, but at the same time it is benefiting us because we are learning. We haven’t had the support of the union since we went on strike because they are not representing us as they should. But through Oscar and Manuel Diaz we have gotten to know many people who are supporting us, beginning with the Mechistas from the Bay Area, Monterey, Salinas, San Jose, Oakland, and Santa Cruz. We know we are not alone, that many places are willing to give us support economically, physically and legally. For that reason we feel stronger than before and we are learning.
Three years ago I used to attend union meetings every fourth Tuesday of the month. We always came out tired and fed up, complaining because no agreements were ever reached. And now in this meeting (the October 15 meeting at which 500 strikers elected a leadership) that all of us strikers had, I saw that there was a lot of enthusiasm. Instead of coming out of the meeting feeling bad, everyone was smiling. Our spirits were renewed. And for that reason I say that instead of hurting us, the companies have given us something.
The blindfolds are coming off our eyes and we are unmasking the union officials. We want to continue having our union, but not the same representatives. We must win the strike, and afterwards when the union elections come, we are going to kick all of them out and put in nothing but working people — persons who will stand with the people and not allow themselves to be manipulated by the bosses nor be puppets of the union.
Unity: Do you think part of the reason the company treats you the way it does is because the majority of you are Mexicanos?
Aurora: Yes, I am sure that it is because we are Mexicanos. The company is used to just telling us what to do, and now when we demand it be accountable, they ignore us.
Armando: Another reason the bosses are treating us that way is because of the large number of people without work, and the majority are Mexicanos. So they are using our own Raza brothers and sisters to fight against us and at the same time to defeat the union. They are being worked many, many hours, but are not paid overtime. So even if they work 50 or 60 hours, the pay they take home is very small. And the company is telling them not to pay their union dues to keep them from joining a union and to destroy the one we have today.
Chavelo: I think the company has seen that Mexicanos, or Latinos, are the ones who have produced the most for them, the most pounds per hour, per minute. But because we have made them so much money, we have made it possible for them to expand their plants — every year they have doubled or tripled themselves. And because they have made so much money, it has gone to their heads and they want more. They want to squeeze all they can out of us in order to become even wealthier.
Guillermina: One of the mistakes the company made was by Ismael Verduzco (vice president of Watsonville Canning). And I think it’s a shame for him to be such a racist with his own people because even though he was born here, he is still of Mexicano descent — the cactus is clearly imprinted on his forehead (The cactus is everywhere in Mexico. The cactus is the “mark” of the Mexicano, like hay to the “hayseed” — ed). I say this because he has been saying that he can do whatever he wanted with the workers at Watsonville Canning, because we are all dumb and cheap Mexicans. But we are going to show him that, yes, we are Mexicanos, but we are neither dumb nor cheap!
Unity: Recently, a strikers’ committee was elected by the strikers themselves. Could you tell us a little about how this meeting was called and the significance of the meeting?
Aurora: This meeting was called for strikers only because we have lost confidence in the company and the union and we did not want anyone to manipulate us. We were very successful because we were supported strongly by all of the strikers. So even though the company and union want to divide us, they are failing. And I think we were more successful than when the union has its meetings. The formation of the Strikers’ Committee and the subcommittees has set the foundation for organizing ourselves in order to have more strength.
Guillermina: I am very happy that we have formed our Strikers’ Committee and subcommittees. We could have formed these committees long before the strike, but the union officials have always been very selfish and never allowed the formation of any committee. As a person who has been involved in this movement from the beginning, I now see the importance of forming these committees, and I also understand why the leaders of Local 912 didn’t want to form one — because they did not want us to organize ourselves.
Unity: I understand that an anglo was elected to the Strikers’ Committee. What’s the significance of an anglo being elected by the union members, who are mostly Mexicanos, Chicanos, Latinos?
Armando: People, including anglos, come to be respected because of the way they relate to the compañeros. The man elected by the workers has worked for the company for 20 years, and during all this time the workers have come to respect him and like him. He has shared with us the problems we have had with all the contracts we have worked under.
Unity: What would you say you have learned during the last few weeks in going about to organize this committee?
Chavelo: What we have learned is that united we can do anything we want. In unity there is strength. You can assume leadership because when you are united, another brother or sister may think of something that hadn’t occurred to you. So if you are a leader, you don’t necessarily have to know how to resolve all problems. When there is unity, you present the problems to the people, and someone among the people comes up with a good idea, which is then approved by the majority and is carried out.
Aurora: We have also become more human because we have seen the problems others suffer as well as the abilities people have which will help us win the strike. And we are sure we will win — with the help of the compañeros and companeras and with help of people from the San Francisco Bay Area in Oakland and San Jose who have oriented us and are helping us.
Unity: The majority of the strikers are women. Have there been particular obstacles that have held back or are holding back the participation of women?
Aurora: Yes, there have been problems, but we are not letting these stop us. In my case, my kids say I’m not caring enough for them, and my husband also says not to dedicate so much time to the strike. But I tell them I like working on the strike. So every time I leave I have to plan out different approaches. For example, they ask why am I the only one who can go from Richard Shaw, why can’t other people go instead? So 1 tell them that I go not because I have to go but because I like it and I’m learning a lot.
Unity: What things do you think could be done to overcome these obstacles to the participation of women?
Aurora: Child care. The majority of the women strikers have small children. They will be able to participate with peace of mind, knowing that someone responsible is taking care of their children.
Guillermina: I am very happy because almost the majority of the women are participating, even though some have problems with their husbands and others with their kids. But I know that these problems will be solved little by little. The husbands will learn to trust their wives more, and the wives will be able to count more on their husbands because we are fighting a just cause, and we must win this strike because the very future of our children depends on it.
We don’t want our children to be treated the way we have been treated. And I think it is very important for our children to understand this. For example, one time I angrily told Sergio Lopez (senior business agent) at a union meeting that ‘We women are going to show you that we will fight for our rights and that we are more decisive, because we are the worst treated and lowest paid. ’ That’s what I told him. I also told him, ‘If you don’t negotiate a good contract for us, we don’t know how but we will kick you out!’
There are many intelligent women, but they can’t develop their intelligence because of family responsibilities. But now that child care will be available, we women are going to be even stronger.
Unity: Many of you have been going to strike support events outside the Watsonville area in northern California. What has inspired you most of all?
Aurora :The selflessness of the people who are helping us. I was very moved by the Commercial Club strikers at the Unity forum last Sunday. Chinese members of Local 2, who have been out on strike for 14 months, and who with the passage of time are more and more united. And who have given up part of the limited food they have to share it with us. I was really moved by the brother who offered us half of his daily bowl of rice. That was on Sunday. And by Wednesday, when we went to a meeting, they donated $111 to the strike. For me these concrete expressions are very important and invaluable and moved me a lot.
Chavelo: What has really inspired me is to see the unity and how people have organized themselves to support us in the San Francisco Bay Area. In one of the trips I made over there, they talked about the needs of the strikers and they did not hesitate for a moment in giving us their support. Their work has had good results. At one of their meetings (Northern California Watsonville Strike Support Committee — ed.) they formed various committees — a legal aid committee, a labor outreach committee to get union locals involved, a fundraising committee, and so on. This all makes us feel even stronger.
Unity: Before the strike, did you have an understanding about what is happening in the San Francisco Bay Area?
Chavelo: I had heard of strikes and other struggles like in South Africa. But in reality, I had never taken much interest in them. It’s embarrassing to admit it, but now I realize what’s happening to people in other areas.
Armando: I only went to one strike support program in San Francisco, last Sunday. What most inspired me was the unity we saw in the audience, among them Asian strikers from the Commercial Club from Local 2. Their vigor after 14 months on the picket line impressed me much. It lifted our spirits, which had sagged a little because for us it is the first time we have been on strike, and after five weeks we had not seen any results from the negotiations. Yet these strikers, who had been on the picket line for 14 months, still had so much enthusiasm and were committed to staying out until their boss recognized their merits. The fact that they know they are the ones who have made the owners rich by increasing their profits. It was a powerful sensation. It was really something, the chants of support, the unity among everyone.
Unity: What has been the role played by the strike supporters?
Armando: It has been a big role because they have helped us with everything, to get organized. And now that we have formed our Strikers’ Committee we feel strengthened because this is the beginning of a movement to organize not only ourselves but the entire union as well. Our goal is to form a committee in all the canneries. And once we accomplish this goal, not only this union but all unions that follow this example will be stronger than ever and will have a more unified membership. In this local, there are about 4-5,000 members, and with this type of organization we will have a lot of power with which to fight the bosses.
The community has donated food to us. Many times families cook in their homes and take food to the picket lines. Many stores have supported us, all the business sector of Watsonville, and not only economic support but also sending canned goods. The Carnation company has a milk pasteurizing plant, and it sends us milk and other milk products. Bread stores send us french bread. Also much help has come from the Bay Area, San Jose and other places. We are very, very grateful to the community for all this support to the workers’ struggle. It makes us feel stronger and keeps us from ever becoming demoralized.
Guillermina: We are stronger, we have been learning . . . I remember when I met Manuel’s mother, Reina Diaz, president of Raza Si, and others on Solidarity Day. She asked me, ‘Who’s the leadership here? Where’s the agenda? Where are the security committees? ’ They started to ask me these questions, and I thought that just having a strike fund committee was sufficient! I told them I didn’t know. So with the help of Manuel Diaz and Oscar Rios, the security committee for the Day of Solidarity was organized right there on the spot. Now we have a Strikers’ Committee, a publicity committee, child care committee and others. And now, we feel capable of attacking all of the capitalists starting with the owners, judges, the police, unemployment, welfare, the banks, the city council — people like Leon Panetta, Ann Soldo and politicians like them, who we can assume are influenced by Mort Console’s power (Mort Console is the owner of Watsonville Canning). But he doesn’t take into account that we the workers are the ones who have made them rich. He is involved in politics because he invited Reagan several times to dinner, and I believe with Richard Shaw as well. That’s why we are going to attack them and the newspapers too. We already know the ways in which to attack them just like they attack us. We are going to put an end to this exploitation.
Oscar Rios is a longtime community activist in labor, immigration and solidarity work in San Francisco, and a frequent contributor to Unity.
“¡Sí Se Puede!” is a chronicle of the Watsonsville Cannery Workers strike of 1985-87 produced for the Cannery Workers Support Committee (Cannery Workers Organizing Project).
A short film by Eddie Wong, 1987.