The Strike to End Strikebreaking
by David Bacon
STOCKTON, CALIFORNIA (5/7/95) - When Vera Rico went to her union meeting one evening in June of 1991, she didn't feel she was doing anything historic. In the heat of California's San Joaquin Valley, the meeting went on for hours. Yet whether they wanted to or not, or even thought so at the time, by the meeting's end Rico and her coworkers had begun to make modern labor history. They voted to strike Stockton's huge Diamond Walnut plant. "We just wanted to get back a little of the big pay cut we took six years before," she remembers. "We were angry."
On September fourth of that year, by the time she and 600 coworkers actually walked out of the plant, the stakes had begun to rise higher. Today, the strike which began that morning has become the longest one in modern U.S. labor history.
Since Reagan broke the air controllers strike in 1981 by firing the entire workforce, every worker who's thought about walking off the job has had to think three and four times, to decide whether the ideal of better conditions is worth the certain risk. Since September 4, 1991, that icy threat has been defined by the fate of the Diamond Walnut strikers.
The battle at Diamond Walnut has ground on for over 40 months, not because its workers made excessive demands, nor because their employer faced desperate economic conditions. This has been a strike against the modern day industrial death sentence itself - against permanent replacement, or in not so polite, but truer, language, strikebreaking.
The strike at Diamond Walnut, the battles at Caterpillar, Bridgestone and Staley in Illinois, and other strikes like them which have torn communities apart in recent years across the country, could all have been resolved quickly but for one thing. The employers in every case hired strikebreakers. This simple act converted traditional job actions over resolvable issues of wages and working conditions into desperate struggles for survival for the workers and unions involved.
In a rightward drifting America, losing a strike no longer means accepting a lower wage or poorer benefits. It means losing your job.
Today, Vera Rico has walked the picketline for almost four years. The plant is filled with strikebreakers. Rallies and marches have become a common sight in Stockton's streets. Caravans from the San Francisco Bay Area, an hour away, bring supporters and food, as they did during the long freezer workers' strike in Watsonville, eleven years ago.
California agribusi-ness is watching Stockton. Giant food processors, canneries, grower cooperatives and multinational agri-cultural corporations - who to this day dominate the state's economy - are all awaiting the outcome of the decision Vera Rico and her fellow union members made at her union meeting when the summer began in 1991. "We're not just fighting to save our union," she says. "We're fighting to save everyone's union."
On one side of this strike are mostly immigrant Mexican women, a workforce which has become the backbone of labor activity in the southwest in the last decade. Pitted against them is the old guard of California agriculture, still the financial spine of the state's Republican political establishment, now locked into a vengeful obsession with control and profit. In the era of Proposition 187, these immigrant workers are fighting a Republican governor who received more campaign money from agribusiness than any other industry, and rode to reelection on a wave of anti-immigrant hysteria.
Rico has a lot riding on the strike's outcome. She and her husband have a modest house on Stockton's south side, where the homes of cannery workers surround the big plants. Her Diamond Walnut job, which she's held for 34 years, helped pay the mortgage and braces for her children. "Our kids went to college, and we even went to Italy once, thanks to that job," she said.
Cannery jobs have been union jobs since the organizing battles which began with the CIO in the 1930s. In the San Joaquin valley, these jobs are worth a lot. For California's 400,000 migrant farmworkers, a cannery job is step out of the fields, and a big step up in wages. It means steady, predictable work which allows a family to settle in one place, with a permanent school for the children. A cannery family can hope eventually to buy a home, even in these economically depressed times. Home prices in working class communities in the state's agricultural valleys are still low.
Tens of thousands of Mexican, Filipina, Punjabi, Black and white women work in the central valley's canneries and packing sheds. They mostly belong to Teamster locals like Stockton's Local 601. If Rico and the Diamond Walnut workers lose their strike, they may lose their union. Teamster locals up and down the San Joaquin, Sacramento, Salinas and Imperial valleys are at risk as well. A chain of strikes to the death have overtaken California's food processing industry in the last decade, since the first battle in Watsonville in 1984. If the strike ends badly in Stockton, like dominoes, more plants are likely to try to force their unions out.
Both the union and the company say they didn't want a strike, but it seems clear that Diamond Walnut was well-prepared for one. The company is a Fortune 500 corporation, and processes over 50 percent of the world's walnuts. Its plant alone covers over 500,000 square feet, on 12 acres. Some workers are even issued bicycles so they can get from one end of it to the other.
Diamond Walnut is a cooperative which includes about 2000 walnut growers around the state. Together with Sun Maid Raisins, Blue Diamond Walnuts, and two other coops, Diamond Walnut is a member of the huge Sun Diamond market-ing complex. For the last three years, Diamond Walnut has had an annual net in-come of $12.5 million, and average sales of $163.3 million. "Our mission," according to Sandy McBride, a company spokesperson, "is to pay our growers more per pound than independent growers." The mission was fulfilled for a decade before the strike started.
The strike changed that sunny picture. Last year, for the first time, the company reportedly didn't even pay some growers for their crops.
In 1985, the company told its workers and the union that it was facing a financial crisis. They agreed to a contract which lowered the base wage for most production workers from $8.43 to $5.25 per hour. Barbara George, a past business agent for Local 601 who worked in the plant at the time, remembers that "people were terrified about losing their jobs." One reason for the fear was that Diamond Walnut had opened a plant in Tijuana, Mexico, with sorting operations iden-tical to those in Stockton. The plant "worked very well because its wage rates were very low," according to McBride.
"What we saw was what the company could do to us if we didn't take the concessions," remembers striker Cruz Zavala. "We could see equipment leaving our plant to go there, and we thought we would lose our jobs if we didn't accept the concessions."
After the 1985 contract was signed, however, Diamond Walnut closed the Tijuana plant. In spite of its low wages, its real purpose was winning wage concessions from Stockton workers. With profits piling up from the new wage rates, Diamond Walnut began bringing automated machines onto Stockton pro-duction lines. Machines like the Gravenix, sorting walnut shells from nut meat with lasers and sound waves, replaced as many as 100 workers each time a machine was brought on line.
In 1985, during the height of the picking season from September to November, over 1500 workers worked in Stockton, and over 600 workers during the rest of the year. In 1990, the year before the strike started, the peak only reached about 800 workers, and the permanent workforce fell to less than 300. "When the technology proved effective," McBride explained, the Tijuana plant "was no longer an economic advantage."
Vera Rico and her coworkers say that when they took their strike vote in June of 1991, they weren't trying to recover all of the wages they gave up in 1985. Instead, they were concerned with trying to maintain company payments for health insur-ance and a modest wage raise. Diamond Walnut, however, had hired a well-known antiunion law firm from San Francisco's financial district, where growers traditionally go to sell stock and buy lawyers.
Littler, Mendelssohn, Fastiff and Tichy sold the company a classic strategy for getting rid of unions, used by employers again and again since Reagan made striker replacement politically palatable. The formula is simple: Propose unacceptable contract terms. Dare the union to strike. When it does, replace the strikers. After the strike has lasted a year, hold an election in which the strikebreakers can vote, and strikers can't, to decertify the union.
According to members of the union negotiating committee, the company proposed changes in the contract which undermined the union itself, and which had little to do with economics. After the strike vote, the company told workers to begin training management and office personnel on the production lines. Lists of managers assigned to take the places of production workers in the event of a strike were left lying around the plant. Diamond Walnut began taking applications for strikebreakers. "Because of the tough unemployment situation we were flooded with applications. We screened and hired workers as fast as we could," McBride said.
Unemployment is high in Stockton and the rest of the central valley. After a dis-astrous freeze five years ago, agricultural unemployment shot up. It's never really come down since. Under freeway overpasses and in the dry flood canals men and women, and often children, squat over small fires, in scenes reminiscent of the Hoovervilles of the 1930s. Most Diamond Walnut workers drive to work down El Dorado Street, the skid row where labor contractors still pick up people for a day's work. Staring at the scores of men and women leaning against the walls of hotels and liquor stores, the plant's workers could have had no doubts about how easy it would be for the company to find strikebreakers.
In factory after factory, and workplace after workplace across the U.S., that's enough to intimidate most workers. Employers in negotiations know that - it's their ace in the hole. Law firms and anti-labor consultants have made good livings from that fear, and the ways in which it can be manipulated. Yet Diamond Walnut workers swallowed its bitter taste, and walked out.
When the strike started on September 4, strikers on the picketline saw that a big change had taken place in the plant's workforce. While over three quarters of the strikers are women, the vast majority of the strikebreakers flooding through the gates were men, a fact McBride confirms. Women in this industry his-torically have held the vast majority of the production jobs, but have had to fight against exclusion from more permanent, highly paid and highly skilled ones.
Diamond Walnut was sued for racial discrimination in the early 1970s by Cruz Zavala, who says that when he applied for a job in the maintenance department, "a supervisor told me 'we don't want no wetbacks here!' But I was born in Stockton." After the suit was settled, the union contract contained language which allowed workers to use their years of seniority on the production line to bid for more per-manent jobs. Vera Rico became a forklift driver, earning over $10.00 per hour. Teresa Hidalgo, who worked at Diamond for 17 years, started as a production worker, and used her union seniority. "I bid on jobs, and got to be supervisor. I worked hard for this company," she says.
"There's still discrimination," according to Zavala. Celia Martinez, who worked 6 years in the plant, remembers that her mother was terminated by Dia-mond Walnut for not speaking English, although she had 15 years experience as a cannery worker. She is bitter because the company only dropped its English language requirement when it began hiring strikebreakers. "Since the strike, they don't ask people if they speak English any-more, because now there are no job require-ments," she said.
In negotiations prior to the strike, the company offered maintenance mechanics, still mostly white men, raises of $1.00 to 1.50/hour, while offering a bonus of about 10¢/hour to women on the production line, who earn as little as $4.50/hour. "Certain in-creases [for maintenance workers] could be guaranteed," according to McBride, "because skilled workers can make a greater difference." Despite the higher wage offer, however, only 8 of 65 union maintenance and power plant workers kept working after the strike started.
Once begun, the strike's success also rested on the new situation in the Teamsters union resulting from the election of reformer Ron Carey, the first international president to take office through the direct balloting of rank and file members. Carey was elected in part as the result of a years long effort by Teamsters for a Democratic Union, who fought for more democratic procedures, and a more militant attitude towards employers.
During the first two months of the strike, the union, including Local 601, seemed much more preoccupied with the election battle than it did with the strike in Stockton. All three candidates for president visited Stockton campaigning for votes. While the local's leaders at the time were more committed to Carey's main opponent, R.V. Durham, the strikers were Carey supporters, according to Lucio Reyes, a Diamond Walnut striker.
After Carey won, resources began to pour into the strike from the national union. Then, a year later, Reyes defeated the local's incumbent secretary treasurer, and the strikers took control of the local. In Watsonville ten years earlier, a similar strike led to political change in the union like those in Stockton. Strikes tend to become tests of effectiveness for their leaders, and shake up the union structure. Once active on picketlines, food banks and demonstrations, strikers lose patience with officials who seem out of step.
New leadership in Washington and in the Stockton local made the strike one of the union's main priorities nationwide. Over the three years since, the union has peeled away Diamond Walnut's main industrial customers, one by one. In the main, these are big baking companies, themselves unionized, from General Foods and Mothers cookies, to General Mills, Kellogg, Ralston, Proctor and Gamble, Pillsbury and Nabisco. Another third of the company's walnuts are exported. To stop these sales, the union sent flying squads of strikers to Europe. From Poland to the Mediterranean, the flood of walnut exports shriveled.
At the 1991 international convention where Carey was nominated, reform-ers proposed increasing the weekly strike benefit from $45.00 per week to $200.00 per week. While these benefits helped stabilize the strikers, the strike fund was eventually exhausted during last year's national freight strike. But even after the fund ran out and strike benefits stopped, the strikers still kept going.
Over the long war which has engulfed it, Diamond Walnut has pursued one unalterable goal - the end of the union, and any obligation to bargain with it. Since the workers won't give up their union, the company is getting rid of them.
In the bizarre, Alice in Wonderland world of labor law, this is just fine. Two elections have been held in the plant, which the company hoped would result in the union's decertification. Before each election, Diamond Walnut managers filled the plant with hundreds of additional strikebreakers, who all voted. Last month the National Labor Relations Board finally took an important step to rectify the scandal, and threw the latest election out. Unfortunately, that step still does not end the strike.
Last spring the strikers took a bus and went to Washington, where they became the national symbol of the Cesar Chavez Workplace Fairness Act. A victim of many compromises, the bill would not have prohibited strikebreaking outright. It would have allowed employers to continue to hire temporary strikebreakers at will, and only prohibited permanent replacement for the first 10 weeks of a strike. Nevertheless, most unions viewed it as a first step towards ending strikebreaking, an illegal practice in most countries, even ones viewed as much less respectful of workers' rights.
The bill failed to muster the votes to override a Republican filibuster in the then Democratic Senate. If anyone wonders why anger at the Clinton administration is rocking the nation's union halls, remember how hard every cabinet member and appointee twisted arms for NAFTA and GATT, and how little they did for the striker replacement bill.
Faced with widespread labor anger and cynicism about the prospects of the Democratic Party, especially in the aftermath of last November's election, the administration has made some moves to try to mend fences. One of them is the recent executive order prohibiting permanent replacement by Federal contractors. The move is a sign that this anger is finally penetrating the White House.
Last week Labor Secretary Robert Reich debated the executive order with Utah's Republican Senator Oren Hatch on PBS. Hatch argued that permanent replacement was uncommon, and that it allowed an employer to gauge the realism of its wage demands in the marketplace. His free-marketeer logic says that if union workers turn down their boss's wage offer, and he then can hire strikebreakers for that same wage, the union must be asking for more than the market will allow.
Reich answered Hatch firmly, but he missed a chance to dramatize the human face of strikebreaking. In the U.S. today, that face belongs to Vera Rico, Cruz and Cynthia Zavala, and 600 other Stockton men and women. Their willingness to strike to defend their living standards, in the face of mass unemployment and the fear of certain replacement, is a mark of courage, not an abstract defiance of the laws of supply and demand.
This is why they have become heroines and heroes in the labor movement. Their perseverance is like a light in the window, or a beacon in rough weather. It symbolizes commitment to thousands of rank and file workers, who take heart because in Stockton they keep fighting, no matter how long it takes, or how hard it gets. They understand the words of striker Celia Martinez: "Today it's us, but tomorrow it could be you."
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