A labor victory in an era of defeats

Song of the Stubborn One Thousand:

The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985–87

“People have said what we have done is heroic. I don’t know. We did what we had to do.” —Gloria Betancourt, Watsonville Canning striker

The Reagan era initiated an employers’ offensive that involved lockouts, union decertification, mass firings of union employees, and an ever-shrinking unionized workforce—beginning a historically long period of low labor struggles that we still grapple with today. While we work through debates concerning what it will take to rebuild a fighting labor movement, Peter Shapiro’s Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985–87 provides an excellent counter-example of success amid a general period of defeat. 

The book is an ambitious overview of the developments of an eighteen-month strike that involved the complex and sometimes oppositional interplay between the Teamsters, community groups, and the workers themselves, as they fought to resist downward pressure on wages in a rapidly changing frozen-food

industry. Shapiro expertly navigates the complex cast of characters including workers, leaders of the Teamsters, leaders of the local, and the local left, to tell a story that provides a glimmer of light in an otherwise difficult period. 

Watsonville Canning, with 1,000 workers, was the largest of eight frozen food companies that had set up shop in the region that together employed 5,000 workers. While the industry had grown rapidly since the 1940s, most firms were still owned locally and both the owners and the workers belonged to the same community. The workers at Watsonville Canning, many of them Latino and most of them women, worked long hours in difficult conditions; but compared to work in the fields, many felt that the work and the pay were better, and they had health benefits. 

The difficult working conditions forged strong bonds between the workers, but these bonds did not extend to the workers’ relationship with the union. Many women in particular, were additionally isolated because of the burdens of home and childcare, and they saw the union and the union hall as male domains. The alienation extended not only to their local leadership, but also to the Teamsters in general. 

For eighteen years, contracts between Local 912 and Watsonville’s frozen­food processors, including Watsonville Canning, had been relatively good for the workers; but the contracts had been negotiated solely by the president of the local, Richard King, who “ran the local as a personal fiefdom.” King called the shots, largely without the membership or the Teamsters’ involvement, resulting in a union ill-prepared to win a strike. King couldn’t even speak Spanish, the language of the workers in the union.

Despite these weaknesses, the workers at Watsonville Canning were local people invested in their community. This would be important in the long and difficult strike.

Shapiro’s book includes not only a discussion of the union’s role in the strike, but also provides vital information on the other forces that emerged in Watsonville to support workers, and the roles they would play as the strike developed. He locates the strike in the context of the debates on the left over the increasingly top-down approach and corruption of the Teamsters, as well as the emergence of rank-and-file cannery workers’ committees inspired by the example of Cesar Chavez and the United Farm Workers. 

In Watsonville, Shapiro notes, the emphasis on building rank-and-file strength and providing real support for workers manifested in two other groups that were involved in the strike, and which also vied for political leadership alongside (and within) Local 912: the Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU) and the Cannery Workers Organizing Project (CWOP). 

The strike began in September 1985 when workers at Watsonville Canning refused a 40 percent pay cut, along with cuts in health benefits, and voted to walk out. Over the next eighteen months, the workers would face injunctions, police violence, and strikebreakers, enduring extreme economic hardship. In the absence of clear leadership from their union, the strikers learned to make decisions on their own. 

In many ways, Shapiro’s book provides an excellent example of the ways that workers learn and develop through struggle. The Watsonville Canning workers learned to strategize with the different, sometimes competing, forces and to help each other to survive. When they returned to Watsonville Canning, they returned together. 

The Song of the Stubborn One Thousand is not wholly a success story. While the Watsonville Canning workers were ultimately able to return to work with wages comparable to the other plants, secure amnesty for strikers, and gain health benefits, they also made significant concessions over the course of the strike. In the interim other plants in the local had settled for lower wages, and so the comparable wages were quite a bit below what workers had earned before the strike. To settle, workers also agreed to modify the pension plan to restore benefits for part-time workers. But, in comparison to what was happening at the time to unionized workers across the country, both the fight and its outcome were significant. 

While an assessment of the forces at work is important to understand what happened in Watsonville, a reader unfamiliar with this period of labor history might find it difficult to keep the debates and the characters straight. Debates between TDU and the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, largely reflected by Shapiro as disagreements between individuals, are difficult to fully understand without additional reading. 

The stories of the workers, on the picket line, fighting scabs and the police, and in the union hall, are the highlight of the book because they show ordinary people doing extraordinary things. I found myself wanting to know more about their lives over the course of the strike and the ways in which they were changed by it. 

One of the strikers, Margarita Paramo, describes one of these life-changing moments that took place near the end of the strike when police tried to arrest a striker for violating an injunction. “We blocked the way so the police couldn’t catch him,” she recalls. “And I grabbed my one-year-old daughter and stood in the center of the road to block the police car and I told him, ‘Go ahead and run me over, but I won’t let you pass.’”

The introduction to The Stubborn One Thousand could also serve well as its conclusion:

If there are larger meanings to be gleaned from this story, they ultimately come back to a story that has been told before but bears retelling: one of ordinary people caught in an extraordinary situation and transformed by it. In the beginning they act out of pure necessity; as the situation develops, they discover both their own strengths and the weaknesses of their adversaries, and learn how to use each to their advantage. In the process, they find their voice—not simply to speak truth to power but to assert a power of their own.

Issue #63

January 2009

Politics and struggle in a new era

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