First Published: The Call, Vol. 6, No. 17, May 2, 1977.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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From December 1976 to the end of February 1977, workers at Farmer John meatpacking in southern California were on strike. Their demands included a wage increase, improved benefits and voluntary overtime on the kill floor. While the bureaucrats succeeded in jamming through a substandard contract, the strike represented a significant advance for the class struggle at the plant. In the course of the strike, the fighting strength and leadership of the rank and file emerged and developed, multi-national unity was heightened, and the bureaucrats were increasingly isolated and exposed before the masses of workers.
From the beginning of the strike, communists from the League for Marxist-Leninist Unity (LMLU) and the October League were active and gave leadership in the strike. We have summed up our work as communists in the Farmer John strike because it was, in the main, a good example of how communists engage in the revolutionary education of the masses.
Our work was also an example of how communists participate in and provide leadership to the struggles of the masses and win the advanced workers to communism and the party.
The strike also showed the growing unity and common struggle of the groups inside the Organizing Committee for a Marxist-Leninist Party, of which both OL and LMLU are members.
Farmer John (Clougherty Packing Co.) is one of the largest meatpacking companies in the entire Southwest. Employing over 900 workers, it is the principal supplier of fresh pork in California.
The work force at Farmer John is made up primarily of oppressed minorities, especially Chicanos, Mexicanos and Blacks. Minorities and women are segregated in the departments with the worst working conditions.
The workers are in Local 563 of the Amalgamated Meatcutters Union. The local has over 4,000 members, the majority of whom are Chicano and Mexicano. J.J. Rodriguez, the secretary-treasurer of the local, has been in power since the 1940s. He has consistently covered his class collaboration with reformism and demagoguery.
At the beginning of the strike, the bureaucrats, particularly Rodriguez, had widespread influence over the majority of Farmer John workers. Rodriguez played on his political ties and activity in the Democratic Party to promote reformism. He also used his position as a Chicano “labor leader” to appeal to narrow nationalism among the Chicano and Mexicano workers. This influence was short-lived, as each action of the bureaucrats revealed to greater numbers of workers that Rodriguez and his gang were nothing but sellouts.
During the strike the bureaucrats sought at every turn to stop mass picketing, demonstrations, and any action against the scabs and company. They did this by preaching reliance on their negotiation skills. The bureaucrats refused to fight the court injunctions and thanked the police for their help and support during the strike.
Communists within the plant played a leading role in putting forward a class struggle program for the strike. For example, our agitation for mass demonstrations at the plant was enthusiastically taken up by the workers. Also, the bureaucrats were forced to “support” two militant rallies which saw hundreds of workers in attendance.
But after these two demonstrations, the bureaucrats became frightened by the workers’ growing militancy. They cancelled any further actions, and with their goons and police they turned back workers from coming out to them.
We saw in our strike work that although the main enemy of the workers is the bosses, our main blow must be directed at the traitors in the midst of the workers’ movement, such as the reformist bureaucrats like Rodriguez. At every turn, they misled the workers’ movement and acted as agents for the imperialist ruling class. Without exposing and throwing the bureaucrats out of the labor movement and building class struggle unions, our struggle against the bourgeoisie will not be successful.
Using The Call and weekly leaflets which were passed out at picket lines and at meetings, we showed how sabotage and stifling of rank-and-file initiative by the bureaucrats were linked to the bribes they received as agents of the capitalist class.
This was particularly true with respect to their chauvinist stand on the oppression of Chicano and Mexicano workers in the plant. The bureaucrats consistently refused to translate meetings and notices into Spanish and encouraged the workers to turn their backs on the demands of the minority workers on the kill floor.
The Call played a key role in the struggle against the bureaucrats, because it linked the struggle against Rodriguez and his gang to the nationwide campaigns against the union mis-leaders in auto, steel and mining. In this way, many workers came to see their struggle as part of the fight of the entire working class.
The bureaucrats, recognizing the strength and growing influence of Marxism-Leninism, directed frenzied attacks against the communists. Early in the strike, these attacks influenced some workers. But by the strike’s end, the workers had seen through this red-baiting.
One example of the failure of red-baiting tactics can be seen in a union meeting during the last week of the strike. Rodriguez, before presenting his sellout contract offer, held up an LMLU/OL leaflet and launched into an anti-communist tirade. The workers shouted him down and demanded that he reveal the contract offer. One worker, who in the past had expressed anti-communism, stood up and challenged Rodriguez “to put his plans and ideas on paper like the communists.” This worker went on to say, “It was the communists who told the truth, not liars like Rodriguez.”
As the exposure of Rodriguez developed, so did the rank and file’s ability to wage a fighting strike. It was only because the bureaucrats held two votes on the contract within one week and mobilized over a hundred scabs for the second vote, that Rodriguez was able to jam through his sellout contract.
By the end of the strike, Rodriguez was exposed to the majority of workers. One important lesson we learned was that it was necessary to struggle against the notion that Rodriguez alone was the problem and educate the workers about the role of the labor aristocracy and trade union bureaucracy as a whole.
Our chief form of work during the strike was the revolutionary education of the masses of workers at Farmer John. Distributing over a hundred copies of The Call each week, as well as thousands of leaflets, we helped raise the level of struggle and consciousness of the majority of Farmer John workers. While doing this broad education, however, we also placed special emphasis on winning over the most revolutionary-minded workers and developing their leadership in the struggle.
Through the course of the strike we overcame conservative thinking which held us back from giving actual leadership in the struggle. This error of relying on our literature alone, rather than combining revolutionary education with participation in the mass struggle, held back our work initially.
We rectified this error by boldly putting forward our leadership. In the context of the mass struggle, the concentrated Call and leaflet campaign enabled us to deepen our influence among a number of revolutionary workers.
The next period at Farmer John is one of consolidating the gains of the strike. We are bringing the party program into the plant in order to consolidate the advanced workers as party members. We are continuing our exposure of the bureaucrats and intensifying the fight for a class struggle union.