Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike 1985-87 by Peter Shapiro (Haymarket Books, £14.99)
THE 18-MONTH strike at Watsonville canning and freezing plant in California may not be well-known in Britain, but it resulted in an important victory for the workers against seemingly insurmountable odds during President Reagan’s union-busting programme.
The story is a dramatic and complex one due to differences within and between organisations on both sides of the strike, which gave rise to an ever-shifting balance of power.
Shapiro delivers a detailed narrative of depth and clarity which unpicks the different styles and motives of various groups involved in the strike and includes first-hand accounts from many participants.
In the 1980s, Watsonville was the “frozen food capital of the world,” processing fruit and vegetables from the Salinas valley. Five thousand workers were employed in eight factories and the largest was Watsonville Canning with 1,000 workers, mostly Mexican women.
In 1985 these women, many of whom spoke little or no English, began a strike to protect their wages, jobs and union rights.
They belonged to the moribund Local 912 of the Teamsters Union, whose president enjoyed a cosy working and social relationship with the owner of Watsonville Canning.
Local 912 had never organised a strike and had no strike fund so the Watsonville workers set up their own strike committee, dealt with the press, organised soup kitchens, foodbanks and picket lines, incorporated community support and learnt by themselves how to run an industrial dispute.
Their first battle was to convince the male and white leadership of the local that their strike was winnable, in a time when industrial plants were closing up and down the country, strikes were ending in defeat and unions were losing their certification. If a factory ran for 12 months with scab labour, a vote could be held to decertify the union.
Shapiro’s book is particularly interesting not only on the workings of US labour laws and their application in Watsonville but also on the internal functioning of the Teamsters and how that affected the strike.
Gradually the Teamsters, both locally and regionally, woke up to its responsibilities and the strike gathered momentum.
After 12 months the company held a vote on union certification and due to a huge mobilisation of the strikers, some of whom were with family in Mexico, the scab workforce was outvoted and union recognition was upheld.
In the end, Wells Fargo bank foreclosed on its loan to Watsonville Canning, which declared bankruptcy and was bought by an agricultural producer who negotiated a new contract with the Teamsters.
The strike ended.
Not one striker had crossed the picket line, Local 912 had been revitalised and the Latino community, discovering that power lies in unity, became recognised as a major force in local politics.
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