David Bacon Stories & Photographs
Strikes
San Francisco's Hume Family -- Building a Rightwing Empire on Dried Garlic and a Busted Union
by David Bacon and Bill Berkowitz

KING CITY, CA (11/8/99) -- King City is a tough agricultural town about an hour south of Salinas, at the high end of the long, thin valley that bills itself as the vegetable capital of the world. In King City, vegetables are king -- people mostly work in the fields picking them, or in the huge Basic Vegetable Products plant, drying garlic and onions for shipment all over the world.

It's been the height of the harvest season since June, but for the last four months, the movement of vegetables through the city and its plant has slowed to a trickle. Instead of running the production lines around the clock, Basic Vegetable's 750 workers have been standing guard in the streets outside. In front of the huge dryers, their picket lines are squeezing the plant's output to a fraction of its normal level, while life in this workaday town has ground almost to a halt.

Like the many strikes that have embroiled California's canneries, packing sheds and food processing plants over the last two decades, this one is not driven by demands for vastly increased salaries and benefits. In fact, the single hottest demand has come from the company. Basic Vegetables has called for the workers and their union to pay the costs the company has incurred in breaking their strike.

The conflict in King City is driven as much by ideology as economics. Company founder Jaquelin Hume, a stalwart of San Francisco's Republican Party who died in 1991, helped create the highly-developed conservative infrastructure of think tanks, policy institutes and foundations which perpetuate the right-wing revolution of the 1990s. Today Hume's son William carries on the family's political legacy, providing the financial seed money for many of the state's most notorious right-wing "wedge" initiatives, political campaigns and candidates.

The Hume family celebrates the free market. In 1983, with the encouragement of President Ronald Reagan and Attorney General Ed Meese, Hume founded Citizens for America, a right-wing lobbying group which, according to columnist Sidney Blumenthal, aimed at "organizing chapters in every Congressional district in the land, bringing the message of the free market and the free world to the grass roots."

In King City, the Hume family's devotion to the free market is more than an abstract principle. "I have no question that the company wants to break our union," says Fritz Conle, organizer for Teamsters Local 890. "The company has seven other plants, and I think they're using us to teach them a lesson. They don't ever want to see a strike at any of their facilities again."

The King City conflict began when the union's contract expired last summer. In bargaining for a new one, workers asked for 2% wage increases in each of three years, and no cuts in existing benefits. But the company put concessions on the table. It proposed cutting workers' hours from 8 to 7.5 per day, which would have substantially reduced the income of the plant's seasonal workers, who only work six months out of the year. Further, Basic Vegetable demanded the right to contract out 30 permanent year-round jobs. These are jobs for the most part held by workers who have used their long years of seniority to get off the production line.

"They're older folks, the mothers and aunts of many of us," says striker Jose Medico. "Many of them wouldn't be able to handle it if they had to go back onto the line at their age."

Behind the demands for concessions, is a distinctly un-free market idea, strikers allege. In the early 1990s, Basic Vegetable tried to expand into the world market, and built plants in Spain and Mexico. However, the overseas ventures turned out to be big money-losers, and were eventually shut down. "But instead of accepting their losses, now they want us to pay the bill," says striker Saul Venegas. Conle asserts that there's no question that the King City plant makes a healthy profit for The Basic Companies, its parent corporation.

Basic Vegetable spokesperson Jay Jory, of the Fresno-based law firm Jory, Peterson, Watkins and Smith disagreed with Conle, saying that the plant had not being doing very well financially. Jory cited a study by the Bain Group which, according to the company, "revealed...that BVP's major competitor was gaining market share and enjoyed a significant advantage in labor costs." The plant was facing a potential shut down, said Jory, and there needed to be "a belt tightening throughout the company...[to make the plant]more productive and more efficient."

Once workers rejected the concessions and struck the plant on July 7, company demands escalated. Basic Vegetable proposed eliminating the union pension plan completely, replacing it with a 30/hour contribution to a 401k savings account. It proposed keeping the wages of newly-hired workers $3/hour below those already in the workforce, and charging them $180/month for healthcare. The company wanted vastly increased subcontracting rights, and the ability to grant promotions to whoever they wanted, rather than going by seniority. The final straw for the workers was when company negotiators proposed that strikers pay an additional $20/month for their medical care until the company's strike-related costs had been repaid.

When the union filed unfair bargaining charges with the National Labor Relations Board, the last demand was withdrawn, but the rest still stand.

At the beginning of the strike the company immediately began hiring strikebreakers, stashing them at motels in King City and nearby Soledad, and even brought in busloads from other rural towns. Strikers claim that local jails have also been a source of recruits. At the end of September, Basic Vegetable announced it had permanently replaced its striking workers. They could return to work, the company said, but only to about 100 temporary seasonal jobs. The rest, and best, of the jobs would now belong to replacement workers.

Bringing in strikebreakers has been the source of violence and increased confrontations. On August 18, a car full of strikers followed a bus carrying strikebreakers back to the small town of Avenal, on the Westside of the Central Valley, over the mountains from King City. As strikers, leaflets in hand, sought to talk to workers getting off the bus to go home, they were instead confronted and beaten. One striker ran down the street, pursued by his adversaries. A local woman, taking her children home, passed by in her car and opened the door, urging him to take refuge inside. Her car windows were broken out as her children and grandchildren watched in terror.

"This attack was orchestrated by Pedro [Ayala], a labor contractor for Basic who, upon getting off the bus yelled that the company had given them the 'green light' to physically injure the strikers," said a statement issued by Local 890. Jory denies this version of events and claims that "Basic had nothing to do with this incident," and that it was union supporters who initiated the violence.

What Basic Vegetable is doing in King City is hauntingly familiar to many other Teamster Union locals in rural California. In 1983, Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods forced Local 912 into a 19-month strike over similar concessions, which the union finally won. But subsequent strikes were lost at the United Foods and Ganges Brothers processing plants in the late 1980s, and local Teamster unions broken. In 1994, Local 601 struck over concessions demanded by Diamond Walnut at its huge plant in Stockton. The strike continues today, making it one of the longest in U.S. labor history.

While strikers sit in the dusty street in front of the plant, William "Jerry" Hume seems unconcerned. When asked if he thought Hume should step in and try to help settle the strike, Jory said that would be unnecessary since there is already a negotiating team in place. Instead, on October 30, Hume co-chaired a lavish banquet at the Ritz-Carlton hotel given by San Francisco's conservative Pacific Research Institute, whose keynote speakerwas Lady Margaret Thatcher, hailed by PRI as the "progenitor of Britain's privatization movement."

Jerry Hume is only following in his father's political footsteps. In 1933, Jaquelin Hume and his brother Bill, established the Basic Companies, which became the world's largest processor of dehydrated onions and garlic. Jack Hume was part of a small coterie of conservative California businessmen who were longtime friends and financial backers of Ronald Reagan - encouraging his entry into public life, hiring his political consultants and bankrolling his 1966 gubernatorial campaign. He joined Justin Dart, the drugstore tycoon; Holmes Tuttle, the automobile dealer; Earle Jorgensen, the steel distributor and others in Reagan's unofficial "Kitchen Cabinet."

When Reagan backers needed an organization to lobby for their domestic and foreign policy agenda, they turned to Jack Hume, who founded Citizens for America (CFA) with Reagan's blessing in 1983. The story of Citizens for America is a fascinating study of how, over the past two decades, the conservative movement has been able to build strong well-funded institutions in a relatively short time, deploy them strategically, and jettison them when they no longer were useful.Hume had a vision - ensuring that the Reagan ideology would be sustained well beyond the Reagan Presidency. He hired Lew Lehrman as chairman, a young retired entrepreneur, who made his fortune building the Rite-Aid drugstore empire and then spent part of it on a failed bid to unseat New York's Governor Mario Cuomo.

In 1985, while Congress was debating aid to the Nicaraguan contras, CFA, with Reagan's blessing, convened a conference in Angola of counter-revolutionary terrorists from four countries, brought together to form the "Democratic International." Attendees included Jonas Savimbi, head of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (then supported by the CIA and South Africa's apartheid government); Adolfo Calero, leader of the 15,000-man Nicaraguan Democratic Force; Ghulam Wardak of the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahedeen; and Pa Kao Her of the Ethnics Liberation Organization of Laos.

At the time of the conference, the CIA had already given the Afghan rebels $250 million, and had funneled another $80 million to the Calero's Nicaraguan contras. Savimbi's UNITA still wreaks havoc in Angola today, although the CIA says it no longer funds the organization.

Continuing his father's conservative advocacy, William Hume has championed school vouchers and other privatization efforts. He was appointed to the California State Board of Education by Gov. Pete Wilson. During his Senate confirmation hearings he was criticized for passing out copies of Charles Murray's notorious book, "The Bell Curve," which tries to put a scientific spin on racist eugenics and argues that whites have higher IQs than African Americans. He is currently Chairman of the board of the Center for Education Reform, which pushes school vouchers and charter schools. Since 1993 Hume has served as a trustee of the conservative Heritage Foundation.

One of Hume's pet projects is the Foundation for Teaching Economics (FTE), founded by his father in 1975 "in response to his concern that many young people were not being taught the basic concepts of market economics." FTE promotes free-market principles by "helping economics teachers become more effective educators," and by "introduc[ing] young individuals, selected for their leadership potential, to an economic way of thinking about national and international issues."

However, funding right-wing causes is where Hume really shines. According to the Citizenship Project, a community-based organization founded by Mexican immigrants and unionists in Salinas, and DataCenter's ImpactResearch Team, Hume and his family have contributed heavily to dozens of right-wing causes and candidates, including:

  • 1995 -- $100,000 to the California Republican Party;;
  • April 1995 -- $25,000 from William's wife Patricia to Proposition 209, California's anti-affirmation action initiative;
  • 1996 -- $150,000 to the California Republican Party; $100,000 to the Governor Pete Wilson Committee;
  • April 1998 and May 1998 - two $100,000 contributions to Californian for Paycheck Protection (Proposition 226), the anti-union ballot initiative;
  • 1998 -- $50,000 to the campaign for Proposition 227, the Ron Unz-sponsored initiative which banned bilingual education in California; and
  • 1996-98 -- $105,000 to school voucher initiatives in Oregon, Colorado and Wisconsin, and $20,000 to Gloria Matta Tuchman, anti-bilingual education and pro-school voucher spokesperson, and candidate for California State Superintendent of Schools. Hume gave an additional $100,000 to Tuchman one week before the November 1988 election.

In addition to these contributions, Hume gave the RNC/Republican National State Elections Committee over $165,000 in 1999, and donated $1,000 or more to the campaigns of George W. Bush and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX). This year Hume also gave at least $1000 to Sen. Gordon Smith (R-OR). Smith is co-sponsor of two Senate bills which would allow growers to bring workers into the country, and make their legal immigration status dependent on their jobs. This would be a big step towards reestablishing the old "bracero" contract labor program, which held immigrant farmworkers as virtual indentured servants through the 40s and 50s. A renewed "bracero" program would reduce farmworker wages drastically, providing an enormous financial reward for the growers who supply the Basic Vegetable plant with its garlic and onions.

While Hume continues his political fundraising for Republicans, the union in King City is escalating its campaign. Basic Vegetable counts among its clients a number corporations with high-profile consumer food products - Kraft, Lipton, McDonalds, Church's Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Cisco, Maizena and Nestle. The union intends to focus attention on their use of products from the struck plant. On November 4, hundreds of strikers surrounded the Transamerica pyramid on Montgomery St., where the corporation has its headquarters, in a move designed to make the company's actions a political issue in San Francisco.

Workers hold a weekly candlelight vigil and prayer service every Friday night from 11PM to midnight outside the plant. And on November 14, strikers and supporters from several Salinas Valley communities will be marching from the King City park, through downtown and out to the plant for a major rally.

The vegetable season is drawing to a close in King City, and it appears like the strike may last at least until next year's season begins in May. Thus far, only 25 of the 750 strikers have returned to work. "If we lose the strike, and the union too, the only other work here in King City is in the fields," explains striker Lupe Vasquez, who has worked at Basic Vegetable for 31 years. "That's where many of us started years ago, and we don't want to go back. With a secure, union job at Basic Vegetable, we've been able to settle down, buy homes, send our kids to college, and have a much better life. That's why we're fighting so hard - we won't give that up."



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