Latino food workers strike a double blow. In winning wage battle, they also enhance political solidarity

One of the country's longest and most bitter labor strikes ended last week, with the workers claiming a major victory. A year and a half after walking out, food processors of Teamsters Local 912 voted 543 to 21 to return to work at Norcal Frozen Foods Inc., formerly Watsonville Canning Company.

The settlement, reversing a wage rollback imposed by the previous owner, is seen by the strikers as a victory for workers throughout the California food-processing industry as well as a positive influence in the wider struggle for Latino political rights.

Under the agreement, Norcal agreed to rehire all the strikers in order of seniority, accepted the union as the workers' bargaining agent, and pledged not to rehire strikebreakers.

More than 1,000 Mexican and Chicano (Mexican-American) workers struck Watsonville Canning in September 1985, when owner Mort Console lowered production-line wages from $6.66 to $4.75 an hour for new hires.

Watsonville Canning accumulated massive debts during the strike, and last month Wells Fargo Bank foreclosed against owner Console. The bank turned over control of the plant in this town 100 miles south of San Francisco to a group of growers, who renamed the company.

At a meeting March 11, workers approved a contract that pays line workers $5.85 an hour. Because other California food packers look to Norcal as a pacesetter, the contract will likely stabilize statewide wage rates, which threatened to dip below $5 an hour.

Norcal attorney Dick Maltzman admits that ``Watsonville Canning clearly lost'' in the wage dispute. But he maintains that the union also lost. ``Victory is not driving a company out of business,'' he says. He adds, however, that the union ``acted responsibly in negotiating with us.''

At a time when organized labor faces large-scale takeaways even at profitable companies, the outcome of the Watsonville strike was unusual. Union members attribute their success to internal solidarity and strong outside support.

``We really stuck together,'' declares strike leader Gloria Betancourt, noting that no Teamsters crossed the picket lines. ``It was the union members who won the strike.''

The strikers received national support from Jesse Jackson and from Chicano community groups, student organizations, and other unions.

As the dispute dragged on, strikers increasingly focused on issues of Latino political empowerment. The strike sparked a lawsuit designed to win Chicano representation on the all-white Watsonville City Council. The suit charges that Chicanos are prevented from holding city office under the system of electing councilors citywide, rather than by district.

``Now we are aware of the need for political support,'' Ms. Betancourt says. ``We have to vote. The strike may be over, but Chicano and Mexican people still need political power - and we're going to get it.''

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