Nothing to Lose

In 1985, Mexican-American women led 1,700 of their coworkers on strike against one of California's biggest canning companies.

A canning factory in Maryland, 1955. Washington Area Spark

In the fall of 1985, 1,700 mainly Mexican women workers at the two largest plants in Watsonville, California, “frozen food capital of the world,” were forced out on strike in a transparent attempt to break their union. The workers at Watsonville Canning, the largest of the two plants, won a stunning victory after a year and a half on the picket line. The story of their long, complex struggle is told in Peter Shapiro’s Song of the Stubborn One Thousand, recently published by Haymarket Books. An excerpt from the book follows.

On Friday, September 6, about two hundred Local 912 members gathered at the union hall, hoping to get the latest on negotiations. At last, the word came: a strike could not be put off any longer. Elizabeth Schilling of the Register-Pajaronian observed the gathering; the next day she told her readers that, although the workers were clearly ready to strike, “Union officials did not seem anxious to call them out.”

Little or no preparations had been made, so an informal group agreed to meet in the hall on Saturday morning to do some rudimentary planning, while a general call went out for people to show up at the hall on Sunday to make picket signs. Shaw and Watsonville Canning were served with strike notices on Saturday.

At 5 AM Monday, September 9, workers reported to the union hall, were given picket signs, and dispatched to the gates of the two struck plants. Several hundred gathered in front of Watsonville Canning and formed a picket line eight blocks long. The picket line in front of Shaw extended a third of a mile. The mood of the pickets was upbeat, even exuberant, despite steady rain that fell for much of the day. Very little appeared to be going on inside the struck plants.

It did not take long for things to turn ugly. At eight o’clock that night, Superior Court Judge William Kelsay, responding to a request from the district attorney’s office and Watsonville Canning owner Mort Console’s claim that he “feared for [his] personal safety,” issued a temporary restraining order that effectively outlawed mass picketing.

The union was allowed no more than four pickets within twenty feet of each of the plant’s eight gates, and the pickets had to be at least ten feet from each other. Apart from these, no one was allowed to congregate within one hundred yards of Watsonville Canning unless they were entering the premises to go to work.

The order had the effect of restraining not just the pickets but residents and businesses across from the struck plant along Ford and Walker streets. In an effort to make it even more restrictive, Watsonville Canning replaced several gates to the plant with chain-link fencing, effectively reducing the number of legal pickets. The company also announced that striking workers would not be allowed on the premises to pick up their last paychecks but would have to wait for them to come in the mail. Union attempts to provide the company with updated addresses were ignored.

To enforce the restraining order, local police chief Ray Belgard immediately put his entire force on twelve-hour shifts, insuring that at least a dozen officers would be on the scene at all times. By one o’clock in the morning on September 10, police had cleared the area around the plant, and at least one striker had been cited for hitting a delivery truck with a picket sign — the first of many citations to come. By the time the strike was three days old, the workers were feeling the full force of the police presence.

The situation would have challenged even a strong union. Local 912 was barely functioning. Teamsters for a Democratic Union attempted to fill the leadership vacuum — “acting as if we were the union,” as Frank Bardacke put it years later. But what happened over the next two weeks was largely spontaneous. According to Esperanza Contreras, after four months of working under increasingly onerous conditions inside the plant, the strikers were “ready for anything” and more than willing to defy the injunction — especially as it became apparent to them that “the police were on the side of the company.”

Watsonville Canning had begun bringing in strikebreakers from out of town, but few made it into the plant unchallenged. A Santa Cruz contractor who supplied Watsonville plants with brussels sprouts, worried about losing business, arranged to have fifty scabs bussed in daily from Salinas to work a shift at Shaw so that at least some of the produce could be processed. To avoid detection, the route and arrival time of the bus were changed regularly. But strikers invariably found it and frightened the passengers enough to dissuade them from returning, causing Richard Shaw to complain that constant turnover was crippling production in his plant.

Gloria Betancourt summed up the mood of many of the striking women when she remarked, “Just because you’re Catholic doesn’t mean you can’t throw rocks at scabs.” Esperanza Contreras recalled filling socks with sand to use on bus windows. “We were so mad, so angry, so desperate,” she said. “But we weren’t using our heads.” She managed to avoid arrest, but according to Chief Belgard anywhere from one hundred to three hundred others were either cited or taken into custody in the first weeks of the strike.

Though the restraining order was supposed to prevent violence, strikers quickly learned that they could expect no help from the police if it was directed against them. “The court order is aimed at the picketers,” Belgard said.

In one particularly galling incident, a delivery truck driver tried to run down a picket. When she complained to an officer, he consulted briefly with Watsonville Canning personnel manager Larry Vawter, who was on the scene, then cited her for violating the restraining order. Picket captain Henry Celis asked why she was being cited and was cited himself. He called the union hall for help; when Sergio Lopez showed up to investigate, he too was cited.

To the strikers, the police were not simply partial to the company. Thanks in part to the breadth of the restraining order, they were indiscriminate. Aurora Trujillo, a Shaw striker whose misfortune it was to live across the street from Watsonville Canning, was arrested for standing on her front porch. Richard Baca, who owned the neighboring El Rinconcito restaurant, complained that enforcement of the order had all but wiped out his business, since customers could not patronize it without risking arrest. “The police won’t let anyone come here to eat, use the restroom, or buy a cup of coffee,” he said.

The crackdown on picketing often went well beyond the judge’s mandate. Four strikers were cited when they followed a busload of strikebreakers returning to Salinas after their shift ended. Four others were cited for writing down the license numbers of scab vehicles.

As the restraining order did not bar such activity, Chief Belgard conceded that his officers “may have erred,” but added, “I agree wholeheartedly with people’s right to strike, but how far should they be allowed to go? Should they be allowed to commit acts of violence? . . . I’m not going to have any problem holding my head up and knowing that we enforced this court order the best and fairest way we could.” Local 912 business agent Leon Ellis retorted that Watsonville Canning “seems . . . to have a pipeline into Belgard’s office.”

When they were able to talk to them, pickets sometimes succeeded in dissuading potential strikebreakers, one of whom commented, “I’d be striking, too, if I were making $4.25 an hour.” Richard Shaw found that he had to go to some lengths to get produce delivered to his plant. Posse Freight, which normally shipped cauliflower to Shaw from the San Joaquin Valley, simply shut down its operations rather than cross a picket line and “risk getting something poured into the engine of one of my trucks,” as owner Phil King put it. “Besides,” he added pointedly, “I was a union member for twenty-five years.”

At Watsonville Canning, things were hardly normal. Strikers and the media got a glimpse of what was going on inside the plant when a group of strikebreakers walked off the job and showed up at the union hall. One of them, hired off the street in Salinas, described a chaotic scene: “There’s too much work and not enough workers . . . The work builds up and the vegetables spill because we can’t handle it. Then the floor supervisor yells at us . . . People are shouting and bins of vegetables being spilled on the floor.” He said many of the strikebreakers didn’t seem to know what they were doing; he had been put on a forklift even though he had never driven one in his life.

Termicold, a nonunion storage facility on Riverside Drive that contracted with Watsonville Canning, had to drastically cut its employee hours; the owner made no secret of his disgust with Mort Console, whom he held responsible for the situation. North of town, growers in the village of Davenport on Monterey Bay had no place to go with their newly harvested brussels sprouts. Their anticipated losses ran into the millions of dollars, and one of them described their situation as “desperate.” A San Joaquin Valley lima bean grower discovered that his contract with Watsonville Canning released the company from responsibility to buy his produce in event of a labor dispute. He had not known about the strike, and Watsonville Canning would not tell him anything; he had to go to the union hall to get the facts. He was bitter because the company “did not make their intentions clear. If I’d known they were going to hold out I wouldn’t have planted like I did.”

Delia Mendez, a social studies teacher at Watsonville High School, had a different concern: a number of her students were children of strikers, and if an acceptable settlement was not forthcoming soon, there was a real possibility that at least some of them would have to drop out of school and go to work to help support their families. Mendez was the daughter of Fresno farmworkers and had worked in the fields herself as a child; her sympathies ran naturally with the strikers, and from the strike’s first days she had made a point of driving by the pickets after work and honking her horn in support. Sometimes she would have several students over to her house, where they would prepare sweetbreads and menudo and bring it to the pickets.

One of her students, senior class president Maribel Medina, had both her parents on strike at Watsonville Canning. She organized her fellow students to go down to the line after school on September 20 to show their solidarity. The young people had barely arrived at the corner of Ford and Walker when the paddy wagons showed up. Seventeen students were placed in custody, and Maribel Medina was roughed up by a cop who grabbed her by the neck.

News of the students’ arrests spread quickly. The reaction was predictable: it took a squadron of police in full riot gear to disperse the angry crowd that gathered at the plant gate Friday night. The city council meeting Monday night was attended by two hundred strikers and supporters loudly protesting the restraining order, which had just been upgraded by Judge Kelsay to a formal injunction. (Mort Console had tried unsuccessfully to make it even more restrictive.) Aurora Trujillo gave the council an account of her own arrest. Also speaking was Maribel Medina, who said the police “treated us as if we were animals.” The council took no action.

Getting Results

The Shaw strikers were forced back to work in February, but the women of Watsonville Canning held out for eighteen months. Mort Console finally had to sell his business to avoid bankruptcy; the strikers won a contract from the new owner after a five-day wildcat. Throughout the long strike, not one of them had crossed the picket line.