Canning-plant workers say discrimination is behind wage cuts

The chants of ``Viva la Huelga'' (Long live the strike) once again echo through desolate industrial streets in an area made famous by John Steinbeck. In the 1930s, the cries came from union organizing drives. Today they come from nearly 2,000 Latina women, striking against two of the United States's largest frozen-food packers. Striking members of Teamsters Local 912 say that the two companies are trying to cut their wages by up to 40 percent because almost all of the workers are Mexicans and Chicanos (Mexican-Americans). Officials of Watsonville Canning and Richard Shaw Frozen Foods Inc. deny there is any issue of discrimination and say they must reduce labor costs to compete with cheaper, out of state imports.

Rafael Espinoza, vice-president of San Francisco's hotel and restaurant union and co-chairman of a strike support committee, notes that ``this is one of the most significant strikes in recent times. The poorest and most discriminated against are the ones saying no to concessions. They fight not only for unionists, but for the rights of Latinos and women.''

Watsonville is an agricultural town of 24,000 people, about 100 miles south of San Francisco. For many Chicanos and Mexican nationals (US green-card holders), work in the canneries is a welcome step up from seasonal work in the fields.

The Teamster master contract once provided $7.06 an hour for production-line workers. Three years ago, Watsonville Canning negotiated a separate contract cutting wages to $6.66, and on Sept. 9, 1985, unilaterally cut them to $4.75. On Oct. 28, workers, by a vote of 800 to 1, turned down the company's ``final offer'' of $5.05.

``They think they can shove us around because we are Mexicans,'' says Gloria Betancourt, a 22-year veteran at Watsonville Canning and an elected strike leader. ``They want to lower wages for the entire industry, but we're going to stop them here in Watsonville.''

The strike has received support from the United Farm Workers union, the League of United Latin American Citizens, the Mexican American Political Association, and other church, labor, and student groups. On Nov. 3, roughly 2500 northern Californian's will attend a Solidarity Day march and rally for the strike.

Larry Vawter, personnel manager at Watsonville Canning, says his company's wage cuts were necessary to stave off bankruptcy. ``Basically it's because of the competition we face in Texas, Washington, Oregon, Mexico, and European countries,'' he says, ``they're selling the same product for $2-3 less a case.''

Steve Shaw, vice-president and general manager at his father's firm, says that ``we had a moderate rollback [in wages] just to bring us into a parity situation with the rest of the industry.''

Four other frozen food packers in the state, however, just signed a Teamster contract freezing wages at $7.06 an hour. For example, Simplot Company, a competing local packer, cut back some benefits but provided a small wage increase.

Both Mr. Vawter and Mr. Shaw are reluctant to compare their wages with other companies in the industry, trying instead to focus the public's attention on the issue of alleged striker violence.

``On Oct. 13, they burned down one of our plants,'' Vawter says. ``Obviously [Teamster Local] 912 is behind . . . all of it. . . . 912 people, including officers, are involved with this.''

Fire Department investigators have determined that the fire was caused by arson. No arrests have been made.

Teamster 912 business representative Sergio Lopez strongly denies any union leaders were involved. ``Plant 2 is one of the least used buildings. I would say that somebody should look into the company's activities. . . .'' Many strikers interviewed on the picket lines say they believe that the company set the fire for insurance purposes and to discredit the strike.

Shaw admits his plant is running at only 30 percent of normal capacity; Vawter would not give out specific figures. But both intend to weather the strike at least until the packing season ends in early December.

The strikers are also girding for a long battle, with members gathering community and union support in the area. That support is encouraging to Gloria Betancourt.

``You can really feel the solidarity and brotherhood,'' she says. ``That's why we'll win.''

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