California food workers fight new cuts in wages, benefits. Companies in battle with each other and imports

Margaret Suares sits on a stone fence behind the Teamsters' hall and says quietly, ``I can't live on $5.50 an hour with no health or pension benefits.'' The diminutive Chicana doesn't look like anyone's stereotype of a Teamster. But she and 700 mostly Latina women Teamsters in Salinas and Modesto have been on strike for three months at United Foods Inc., a major national frozen-foods company. Salinas is about 100 miles south of San Francisco, while Modesto is 90 miles southeast.

Ms. Suares says the company wants to cut wages by $2.21 an hour and eliminate most health and welfare benefits. The United Foods strike is the second major frozen-food strike in northern California this year.

Two years ago most of the approximately 100,000 unionized production line workers earned $7.05 an hour. During an 18-month strike that ended in March, Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Company tried to lower wages to $5.05, cut back benefits, and end union representation. But the workers won $5.85 plus benefits, and kept their union.

Over the next year, wages will be negotiated for about 25,000 California Teamsters in the frozen-food industry. The United Foods strike will help determine whether the industry wage stays above $5.85 an hour and if benefits will be maintained.

``What's going on here,'' in Salinas says Chuck Mack, president of Teamsters Joint Council 7, ``is being viewed by every food processor in the country.''

Numerous attempts to reach United Foods executives in Salinas, Modesto, and at their corporate headquarters in Bell, Tenn., were unsuccessful. Willie Soratos, plant manager at the Salinas plant and the only official to answer phone calls, stated that ``we have no comment on anything to the press.''

The strike began in Modesto, when 300 members of Teamsters Local 748 walked out June 16. They had been working for a year without a contract, during which time management reduced production line wages to $5.05 an hour and eliminated benefits for lower-paid workers.

Then on Aug. 1 about 400 workers at the Salinas plant walked out when the company unilaterally reduced wages of $7.06 an hour to $5.50. The union says about 80 strikebreakers are working inside the Modesto plant, only 20 of whom are former union members. In Salinas, about 15 to 20 Teamsters reportedly crossed the lines.

Why is United Foods insisting on such major concessions? In documents filed with the federal Securities and Exchange Commission, management maintains that concessions are needed, among other reasons, for the company to compete with foreign imports.

David Runsten, an economist and coordinator of the Ford Foundation-funded Working Group on Farm Labor and Rural Poverty, confirms that imports have won a sizable share of the market in vegetables such as broccoli and cauliflower.

But he adds that most big US frozen-food companies ``have bought up or cut deals with firms in Mexico and Central America. Half the product coming from there is brought in by companies such as Green Giant, Birdseye, and Campbell's Soup.''

So the real battle, Mr. Runsten maintains, is not between US companies and foreign competitors, but among US companies, who are trying to cut costs.

The Teamsters are determined not to allow the industry wage to fall below $5.85 an hour. They have already launched an aggressive campaign to win public support for the United Foods Strike. Long known for backing white, male truck drivers, the Teamsters have been accused of ignoring the mainly Latina women in the canneries.

Workers credit the Watsonville strike for changing the situation. In the opening months of the strike, rank-and-file workers formed their own strikers committee and eventually voted out a number of the conservative white Teamster leaders.

Sherie Teng, strike coordinator for Teamsters 890 in Salinas, says the union will soon file a discrimination complaint against United Foods with the US Equal Employment Opportunity Commission. It will allege that the wage reductions mainly affect women workers, while preserving the same pay for the mainly male mechanics and other higher skilled jobs.

On Oct. 8, Teamsters Joint Council 7 announced a campaign to pressure growers, retailers, consumers, and bankers not to deal with United Foods. The union says three local supermarket chains have already agreed to pull United Food's Picksweet products off their shelves.

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