Watsonville Canning Strike

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Watsonville Canning Strike

United States 1985-1987


Latina workers within Watsonville, California's frozen food processing industry walked out on 9 September 1985 after their employers radically cut their base pay and benefits, citing competition from right-to-work states and Latin American processors able to pay lower wages. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, the union representing these workers, held out for 18 months. The union typically had a decent relationship with area employers. Edward T. Console, owner of Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods, had signed the industry's first union contract with the Teamsters in 1949, which established industry wage patterns, but by 1985 they were in a bitter battle. Union representatives saw this strike as not only important for the women on strike in Watsonville, but also as a barometer for labor throughout the country. Unions were in decline and this strike was viewed as a predictor of labor's future health. Ultimately, the union and the company settled, but the damage to the local food processing industry was profound. Despite boycotts, there was such a market glut that consumers never felt affected by the strike. Competition was so fierce that plants ultimately closed.


  • 1965: Arrest of the Rev. Martin Luther King, Jr., and more than 2,600 others in Selma, Alabama. Three weeks later, in New York City, Malcolm X is assassinated.
  • 1975: U.S. Apollo and Soviet Soyuz spacecraft link up in space.
  • 1980: Beginning of the eight-year Iran-Iraq War, destined to be the costliest conflict in the twentieth century's second half.
  • 1982: Argentina invades the Falkland Islands, a British possession, and Great Britain strikes back in a 10-week war from which Britain emerges victorious.
  • 1985: A new era begins in the USSR as Chernenko dies and is replaced by Mikhail Gorbachev, who at 54 years old is the youngest Soviet leader in decades.
  • 1985: In a year of notable hijackings by Muslim and Arab terrorists, Shi'ites take a TWA airliner in June, Palestinians hijack the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in October, and fundamentalists take control of an Egyptian plane in Athens in November.
  • 1986: Seven astronauts die in the explosion of the U.S. space shuttle Challenger on 28 January.
  • 1986: An accident at the Chernobyl nuclear reactor in the Ukraine kills 31 workers and ultimately leads to the deaths of some 10,000 people. The Soviet government attempts to cover up the problem rather than evacuate the area.
  • 1986: In November the scandal variously known as Iran Contra, Irangate, and Contragate breaks, when it is revealed that the Reagan administration agreed to sell arms to Iran in exchange for hostages, and to divert the funds from the arms sales to support the anti-Sandinista Contras in Nicaragua.
  • 1987: Iran-Contra hearings continue for much of the year, making a household name of such figures as Oliver North and his secretary, Fawn Hall.
  • 1992: Former Panamanian leader General Manuel Noriega is convicted on drug charges in a U.S. court and sentenced to 40 years in prison.
  • 2002: The U.S. economy, already suffering with the end of the technology boom in 2000 and the drop in stock prices following the 11 September terrorist attacks, is not helped by revelations of malfeasance on the part of corporate executives. Some of these former business leaders are led away from their offices in handcuffs, and huge corporations such as Enron and World Com are forced into bankruptcy as a result of illegal accounting practices.

Event and Its Context

Workers Strike to Keep Wages

Workers at two large frozen food processing plants—Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods and Richard A. Shaw—went on strike on 9 September 1985, because their base pay and benefits had been drastically reduced. Most were Latina. Company owners said they had to cut pay to compete, as cheaper products flooded the domestic market. Other unionized plants negotiated settlements.

Watsonville, California, the so-called frozen vegetable capital of the world prior to the strike, packed than 40 percent of the United States' frozen broccoli, brussels sprouts, green peppers, and spinach, much of it grown along the Pacific Coast and inland in the Salinas Valley. Watsonville Canning processed produce for both Birds Eye and supermarket private labels. At its peak, the plant processed 140 million pounds of produce annually. It and the Richard A. Shaw Company together handled 80 percent of all the frozen food processed in Watsonville. The California industry employed about 3,000 workers, and the reported number of striking workers varied widely. Workers' pay had been previously cut by 40 cents per hour, and by July 1985 union employees were paid $5.85 an hour. Other companies were reportedly paying much more than Watsonville Canning in employee benefits. Prior to the strike, union workers earned $7.06 hourly.

Teamsters Local 912, which represented the cannery workers, was formed in 1952. Richard King headed the local from its inception. Teamsters for a Democratic Union, a reform faction within the union membership formed in September 1976, pressed the local to strike, and the workers walked out at all city canneries. In a 28 October 1985 "final offer," workers turned down a $5.05-per-hour wage proposal by a vote of 800-1. Shaw settled after four months. The 900 union employees agreed to a 17 percent pay cut. After union members at another cannery agreed in July 1986 to accept proposed pay cuts, $5.85 per hour became the standard industry wage.

The 18-month holdout took a great economic toll on the Watsonville strikers. With pride, the phrase is repeated in various prounion strike accounts: No striker scabbed. Strikers were provided with a $55-per-week strike benefit in return for picketing or other union work. In addition to losing their paychecks—about $250 per week mid-season—workers' benefits ended. Few had food stamps or other welfare support. Local food banks and family members filled the gap. Those who had savings lost them. About 16 months into the strike, assistance such as groceries had tapered significantly. Some women lost their cars and furniture, but they continued to hold out for a better contract. Some workers found other jobs that allowed them to picket night or weekends. Company executives hired replacement workers who earned $5.16 per hour. Police accompanied strikebreakers bused to Watsonville; those who had cars found them vandalized at the shift's end. Scabs typically worked a few weeks before quitting.

Union Politics Muddy the Situation

Confusing matters further, Jackie Presser, president of the Teamsters, had forced M. E. "Andy" Anderson from office in 1984. Anderson had been vice president of the international union and head of the Western Conference of Teamsters. Anderson supported the company during the strike as a labor relations consultant. He was a friend of owner Mort Console as well. According to the Los Angeles Times, "union negotiators were stunned when they saw Anderson sitting with company officials at the last bargaining session a few weeks ago. It was the first they knew of his role with the company." Anderson submitted that the union was trying to destroy the company. Company officials blamed Presser for instigating the strike as revenge against Anderson. Representatives of both the Teamsters and Teamsters for a Democratic Union said these charges were ridiculous.

Teamsters for a Democratic Union helped draw attention to the strike and helped raise funds. The group asked for weekly meetings for the duration of the strike. They urged the union to increase strike benefits from $55 to $100 per week. The Teamsters estimated the strike cost the union more than $5 million. It was, however, viewed by key union officials as having the potential to revitalize the flagging national labor movement. Richard King, the representative for the union local, told the New York Times very early in the strike that both employers and unions throughout the country were closely watching events in Watsonville. "If we lose the strike," he said, "it would have one hell of a bad effect on labor. The Teamsters are a strong union in California, and California is a strong labor state. If we lose here, companies all over the country would try what they're trying to do here."

Race and Gender in Negotiations

Ethnicity was a factor throughout the strike. The employers and the local city officials were Anglo in a city inhabited by a Latino majority. Most growers were Anglo men. An estimated 85 percent of all strikers were Latina. The head of the local was a white man who did not speak Spanish. Many of the striking workers were also single mothers. Discrimination was a factor, according to union representatives, in how the union-company negotiations progressed. During the strike, a jury awarded a former Watsonville Canning employee $135,000 on grounds of discrimination. This ethnic and cultural divide would solidify support by the Chicano and Mexican communities, and the success of the strike is attributed to this solidarity. As Frank Bardacke explained in an article in El Andar, "Strike defections are not just questions of morale. When a company can win back a significant minority of its experienced workers, those workers and raw scabs can restore production to a high enough level to wear down a strike. Throughout the strike at Watsonville Canning . . . the whole packaging operation was a shambles, forcing the company to pack by hand or to bulk pack and send its product to other companies to be repacked. . . . When all the Wats Can mechanics went on strike, the supervisors, management personnel and even out-of-town experts could not get the plant into good working order."

Support from other unions helped immensely, including that from the United Farm Workers as well as organizations attuned to Latino issues, such as the League of United Latin American Citizens and the Mexican American Political Association. The attitude among strikers was that you could not cross the picket line and still continue to live in Watsonville. This was not out of fear but pride. Despite the hardships, friendships were forged under pressure. Some grocers extended credit to strikers while merchants declined to cash scab checks. By one account, "so many turkeys were donated by the community in the 1985 Thanksgiving turkey drive that the food committee had enough frozen turkeys left over to serve turkey enchiladas at strike events months later." Violence during the strike included attacks on replacement workers entering the plant. They were reportedly pelted with rocks. Fires caused an estimated $2 million in property damage. One of these destroyed a packing shed.

Watsonville Canning, idled by the strike, owed growers an estimated $7 million and Wells Fargo Bank an additional $18 million. The bank had loaned the company $23 million during the strike. The Teamsters exerted pressure on the bank by announcing a vote requesting that the union withdraw its $800 million from the bank. As the union prepared to close its accounts, Wells Fargo foreclosed on the company.

In September 1986 the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced it was investigating the company. With help from Wells Fargo Bank, new ownership was found for the failing company. With new ownership in February 1987, negotiations commenced immediately. Union officials approved the initial agreement, but workers thought the medical benefits were inadequate for most. The union cut strike benefits, announcing the end of the strike. The workers, however, went back on strike. Several women launched a hunger strike to draw attention to their demands. Within five days, the growers' consortium relented. In addition to meeting their demands for medical benefits for all workers, they also granted seniority rights and striker amnesty. A three-year contract with a base hourly pay of $5.85 was accepted 11 March, by a vote of 543 to 21. Both sides were elated. By March 1987 the growers who were still owed money formed Norcal Frozen Foods.

The plant opened with a skeletal staff rehired on a seniority basis. Although the new owners provided the plant with plenty of produce and business, other customers had struck deals with other packaging facilities during the strike. The company did not survive.

Key Players

Anderson, M. E. "Andy": Formerly vice president of the Teamsters international union as well as head of the Western Conference of Teamsters, Anderson was a "labor relations consultant" during the strike.

Console, Edward T.: Owner of Watsonville Canning who signed the frozen food processing industry's first union contract with the Teamsters in 1949. This agreement established the industry wage pattern.

Console, Mort: Owner of Watsonville Canning during the stike. The company was the nation's largest frozen vegetable processor at the time of the strike. He closed the plant under a huge debt burden.

Gill, David L.: A third-generation farmer based in King City, California, and a 1973 graduate of California Polytechnic State University San Luis Obispo, Gill was president of Gilco Produce Co. during the Watsonville Canning strike. He was one of the growers to whom Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods owed money. He became president of Norcal Frozen Foods.

King, Richard: At the time of the strike, King had been the Teamsters local president since its inception in 1952. He retired in December 1985.

Lopez, Sergio: Upon the retirement of Richard King in December 1985, Lopez was elected to head Teamsters Local 912.

Presser, Jackie (1926-1988): Born in Cleveland, Ohio, Presser headed the International Brotherhood of Teamsters at the time of the Watsonville Canning strike. He had been the union's national president since 1983. Some thought the strike was the result of a power struggle between Presser and M. E. ""Anderson, who had left the union in 1984.

Shaw, Richard A.: owner of Richard A. Shaw, Inc., one of the two frozen food processing plants involved in the Watsonville strike. His company settled with the union four months into the labor action.

See also: International Brotherhood of Teamsters.



Craft, Donna, and Terrance W. Peck, eds. Profiles of American Labor Unions. Detroit: Gale Research, 1998.

Moody, Kim. An Injury to All: The Decline of American Unionism. New York: Verso, 1988.


Bardacke, Frank. "The Workers, United." El Andar, October1995.

Bernstein, Harry. "Labor: Ex-Teamster Leader Bolsters Union's Foes." Los Angeles Times, 10 September 1986, p. 1.

Brandt, Richard. "A Fight for Survival on Cannery Row."Business Week: Industrial/Technical Edition, 30 March 1987, p. 90B.

Brecher, Jeremy. "Labor History: Resisting Concessions," ZMagazine, May 1998.

"Concessions at Issue in Strike of Food Plants." New York Times, 20 October 1985, Sec. 1, p. 28.

Erlich, Reese. "California Teamsters Election Tests Influence of Women, Hispanics." Christian Science Monitor, 10 December 1985, p. 8.

——. "Canning-plant Workers Say Discrimination Is Behind Wage Cuts." Christian Science Monitor, 4 November 1985, p. 6.

Lindsey, Robert. "Eating Patterns Affect Packers Strike."New York Times, 1 January 1987, Sec. 1, p. 14.

——. "Packing Plant Strike: Arduous Battle to Survive."New York Times, 27 January 1987, Sec. 1, p. 14.

Tirschwell, Peter M. "Frozen Out by Free Trade." Journal of Commerce (1 March 1996): 1.

"Workers Vote 543-521 to End Bitter Eighteen-Month Strike at Frozen Food Plant." Los Angeles Times, 12 March 1987, Part 1, p. 24.

Zonana, Victor F. "Eighteen-Month Strike at Food Plant May End." Los Angeles Times, 4 March 1987, Part 1, p. 24.

Additional Resources

"Santa Cruz, a Century—The 1980s: Community's Latinos Shake Political Stick." Santa Cruz Sentinal (22 January 2003). http://www.santacruzsentinel.com/extra/century/ 82/.

—Linda Dailey Paulson