Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

From worker correspondents

Sum up of 1979 cannery contract struggle

First Published: Unity, Vol. 2, No. 16, August 10-23, 1979.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The following article was contributed to UNITY by a group of cannery workers who are all active in the Northern California Cannery Workers Committee (CWC), a mass caucus. Some of them also work with the League of Revolutionary Struggle (M-L).

UNITY believes that their sum up contains some valuable lessons for the working class movement. They recently concluded a six-month struggle for a decent contract in the third largest bargaining unit of the Teamsters in the U.S.

Through the work of CWC, a network of cannery workers was built throughout northern California, in the six major areas where canneries are located. During the contract struggle they took up and combined a variety of issues – economic issues, for union democracy and against national oppression. CWC has scored a number of important, concrete victories in their work, including the winning of an affirmative action program, translations of union literature and meetings for non-English speaking workers, the defeat of state plans to cut back unemployment benefits for seasonal workers, and winning a number of elected union positions.

Throughout the contract struggle this year, UNITY printed a number or articles contributed from cannery workers, which helped increase the circulation of UNITY among cannery workers and helped more workers become open to Marxism-Leninism. Through this process, a group of workers got together and worked on this sum up for UNITY.

* * *

Work in the cannery is fast, heavy and tedious. There are 65,000 cannery workers in northern California, 70% oppressed nationalities and mostly women. Most of us can find work only two to three months a year, but we do a year’s worth of work in that time. During the canning season we work six to seven days a week.

Wages are low for unskilled workers, starting at $5.94 an hour. No one gets an adequate medical plan, pension plan, or any guaranteed job security. This last point is important because thousands of cannery workers are suffering from layoffs due to the industry’s rush towards mechanization.

Accident rates are among the highest in the state, as speed-ups and exhaustion take their toll. Dangerous chemicals, wet slippery floors, constantly running machinery, and deafening noise surround us all day.

During the off season we are cast off to eke out whatever living we can to survive. The majority of cannery workers are forced into garment sweat-shops, or migrate to work in the fields, or collect a meager unemployment check for part of the year. The reality of national oppression is clear to us: the ten percent of the work force with permanent, year-round jobs is overwhelmingly white and male.

CWC forms to fight conditions

As a result of the oppression in the cannery combined with the activity of the national movements in the late 1960’s, Mexican and Chicano cannery workers united to form the CWC in 1970.

Immediately CWC gained support among Third World cannery workers in the region. CWC took up many issues. It actively fought for more representation in the union and against many instances of national oppression on the job.

In 1976 CWC fought the companies and the chauvinist Teamster leadership to win an affirmative action policy. A federal court-ordered settlement provided for $5 million to cover workers’ claims on past discrimination, and set up job training and upgrading for minority and women workers. CWC also voiced opposition to the Bakke and Weber decisions – the only force in our union to do so.

CWC set up the Cannery Workers Service, in San Jose, to help cannery workers fight attacks by the migra (Immigration and Naturalization Service – INS). In 1974 CWC played a major role in mobilizing hundreds of cannery workers to march against the migra in a San Jose demonstration.

Because CWC showed by its actions that it stood for the workers’ interests, CWC won some important union election victories in San Jose last year. We won six out of thirteen elected positions, including two of three business agent slots. We also made strong showings against incumbent bureaucrats in other locals in the region.

The 1979 contract struggle

Our strategy for the 1979 contract was this: to build a broad, mass movement behind our contract demands by takin up particular campaigns around some key issues; organize pressure from the rank and file against any sellout from the Teamster bureaucrats; and through this to build up CWC’s own forces for future fights.

In early 1979 CWC called a number of meetings, uniting three strong local CWCs from San Jose, Oakland and Sacramento, as well as activists from Modesto, Hayward, and Vacaville.

We formulated demands which spoke to the conditions that cannery workers face: to break Carter’s 7% wage ceiling; to guarantee jobs against mechanization; to strengthen affirmative action; for elected rank and file safety committees with the power to shut down dangerous equipment; for company-paid supplemental unemployment benefits; and for cost of living that keeps pace with inflation.

We developed plans for campaigns around affirmative action and AB 325, a state bill which would eliminate unemployment benefits for over 140,000 cannery, agricultural and other seasonal workers.

Around affirmative action, we stressed the importance of fighting for the actual implementation of the program we won in 1976. In reality only 10% of the workers’ claims were compensated, and just a trickle of minority women were promoted into job training and higher jobs. We took up this fight by encouraging and helping workers file claims for promotions and for compensation for past discrimination. In February we picketed the EEOC to demand compensation for past discrimination.

Hundreds of workers were mobilized into the campaign to fight AB 325. CWC played a major role in a broad coalition, which also included the United Farm Workers union, the California Rural Legal Assistance, the Anti-Bakke Decision Coalition and others. The coalition staged mass demonstrations against the cutbacks and CWC organized workers to go to state hearings in Sacramento. We played a major role in getting AB 325 finally defeated in the state legislature.

Through this campaign we got workers into action, highlighted the conditions facing cannery workers, and broadly promoted our contract demands. From the AB 325 fight, many more workers were exposed to the power of a united rank and file. It was a valuable experience which many workers put to immediate use in the contract struggle.

Struggle against bureaucrats’ sellout

In trying to organize for our contract demands we had to struggle with the union bureaucrats at every step. The Teamster leaders tried to keep us in the dark about the negotiations since they started in February. CWC demanded more contract information throughout the struggle.

We found that to really build a mass movement of cannery workers we had to fight for the equality of languages, because so many cannery workers are not English-speaking. We knew that otherwise, the third world immigrant workers would never be able to fully participate in the struggle. The chauvinist union leadership opposed this, and we had to bombard every union meeting with motions for simultaneous translations. On the shop floor we demanded that all literature be translated into the languages of the workers. Our persistence paid off, as more non-English speaking workers got active. And through the course of struggle, we won over more English-speaking workers to the importance of fighting for the equality of languages.

On June 14 the Teamster’s Cannery Council struck a deal with the cannery owners, which did not meet any of our demands. In keeping within Carter’s 7% wage guidelines and denying us a decent cost of living allowance, we were left miserably trailing inflation. The deal also included nothing to improve safety conditions, or any compensations for plant closures or mechanization.

The Council tried to jam this sellout through two weeks before the old contract was due to expire. But we met them head on. Utilizing the unity we had built through months of struggling for the equality of languages, we were able to make the unprecedented move of getting a temporary restraining order to delay the ratification process until all contract literature was translated. The bureaucrats were forced to distribute all contract changes and translate them into Spanish, although the court would not uphold our demands for other languages (Chinese and Tagalog).

During this legal battle the CWC network maintained constant communications with each local. Through the network CWC got out a leaflet urging a ”no” vote on the contract. At the same time, the bureaucrats spread the word that if we didn’t, ratify the contract, we would lose money because we’d lose work.

CWC’s efforts to defeat the contract failed, even though the, voter turnout was less than 10%.

Summing Up

Initially, the workers were frustrated and disillusioned by this defeat, but as we summed up we saw that we had won some concrete victories and made important gains in the growth and development of the rank and file movement. CWC was able to deepen its ties and strengthen its network to almost every city where there are cannery workers in northern California. CWC’s local committees were greatly strengthened. And despite vicious red-baiting and all kinds of attacks by the Teamster reactionaries, CWC continued to grow and serve as an example in the industry.

We feel that our most important gains were in building rank and file resistance to national oppression and building multinational unity, as seen in the AB 325 campaign and the fight for the equality of languages. We are confident that the rank and file movement will continue to fight for the workers’ demands and that it will continue to grow.