Encyclopedia of Anti-Revisionism On-Line

Peter Shapiro

Lessons of Watsonville

First Published: Guardian September 9, 1987.
Transcription, Editing and Markup: Paul Saba
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The dramatic victory of the Watsonville Canning strike in March, 19 months after it began, adds to a growing sense that labor’s long retreat may be stopping. The 1100 workers at the nation’s largest frozen food processor fought off an attempt to bust their union, forced their employer so deeply into debt that he had to sell is business, and abruptly halted the downward spiral of wages in the frozen food industry, which hadn’t seen a strike in 30 years.

What enabled the Watsonville workers to win? Since the concessions wave first began in the late 1970s, progressive trade unionists and left activists have correctly argued that giving in to employer demands only invites new ones, that each new round of givebacks renders unions less able to resist the next. But “drawing the line,” however important, is only a first step. In the course of the anti-concessions struggle, many creative ideas have been introduced.

In Watsonville, one of the main lessons is the role of the national movements for democracy as a critical factor in the nationwide struggle against concessions. It’s no coincidence that many of the most militant battles against concessions are being waged in industries where lower strata oppressed nationality workers are concentrated.

As workers in the Northeast and Midwest fight plant closings and unemployment, the struggle is sharpening in the Sunbelt states, where growth industries are moving to take advantage of the weak unions and right-wing climate. This shift toward the Sunbelt and its resulting attacks on Blacks and Chicanos is bringing forth an incredibly powerful struggle for democracy and political power. The working class of those oppressed nationalities is at the cutting edge of the struggle at the precise point where national and class struggle is sharpest.

Far from being marginal, these workers can bring to bear the full force of the oppressed nationality movements for democracy and political power on the side of working-class struggles against concessions and attacks. Thus the working class gains a much needed and powerful ally. At the same time, much needed multinational working-class unity can be achieved only on the basis of the most thoroughgoing advocacy of national equality by the entire class.

This is what happened in Watsonville, and why a correct understanding of the national question and of strategy and tactics is critical to understanding why Watsonville workers won. And why, at critical junctures, sectors of the left were unable to understand what was propelling the strike’s militancy, and what w the basis of the workers’ strategy.


To see why the Watsonville strikers took I path they did, it helps to understand the origins of the California cannery workers’ movement. The movement comes not out of a rank-and-file opposition trend in the Teamsters, but out of a tradition of struggle with roots in the farmworkers movement. It dates back about 20 years to organizing efforts in towns up and down the California agricultural valleys (Stockton, Modesto, Oxnard, Salinas, San Jose), as large numbers of Chicano and Mexicano farmworkers and their children began working in the canneries. The first cannery workers’ caucuses formed around issues of national oppression and discrimination such as promotion, hiring and the use of the Spanish language in contracts.

For the Chicano/Mexicano people, the canneries symbolize a first step out of back-breaking field labor, and a chance to settle families in one place and allow children to go to school year-round. The farmworkers’ and cannery workers’ movements are an integral part of the Chicano people’s overall struggle for their rights as a people and for a decent standard of living–and for dignity, justice, equality and self-determination.


Early in the strike, a meeting of 500 strikers elected the strikers committee leadership, predominantly Chicano/Mexicano strikers with strong ties to other workers. Some on the left were critical of the committee because it included strikers whom they considered “too moderate.” They also failed to understand the depth of the workers’ national sentiments and their desire to have their own leadership.

In my opinion this view is wrong on two counts. It is precisely because the strikers committee had people with a range of views that the strike was able to maintain unity (not one striker ever crossed the picketline!). More important, the strikers committee reflected the Chicano/Mexicano workers’ strong desire to elect their own leaders, and was necessary to fully bring into play the initiative of the strikers themselves.


Another key point involves the strikers’ relationship to the Teamsters. Many wondered why the Teamsters, arguably the most racist and reactionary union in the country, stayed with this strike to the end, at a cost of $6 million in strike benefits alone. Many on the left are now more willing to recognize the importance of the national question in different labor struggles, yet mainly relegate it to a question of culture and language as important in keeping the strikers unified. They still miss the main point of the national question, which is one of political power and democracy.

In Watsonville, mid-level Teamster officials like Chuck Mack of Joint Council 7 understood that Teamster power on the West Coast would suffer if the Chicano community was alienated. They recognized that through family and village ties, 50,000 California cannery workers would be immediately alerted if the Teamsters sold out the strike. These cannery workers are increasingly resisting the fourth-class, racist treatment they have suffered from the Teamsters’ Anglo leadership, making the Watsonville strike a test of the union’s commitment to Chicano workers.

The strikers also consciously built multinational alliances. Monthly caravans of supporters from five AFL-CIO central labor councils, labor breakfasts and plant gate collections were all part of the broad multinational support movement which also helped keep the every Chicano elected official and major Chicano organization in the state.

The strikers also consciously built multi-national alliances. Monthly caravans of supporters from five AFL-CIO central labor councils, labor breakfasts and plant gate collections were all part of the broad multinational support movement which also helped “keep the Teamsters leaders honest.” And the left, despite differences, was able to work together and contributed to the strike’s outcome.

By the time of the rally of 4000 with Jesse Jackson in the tenth month of the strike, it was evident that the entire Chicano movement and significant sectors of the Northern California labor movement, students and progressives of all nationalities were backing the Watsonville strikers.

The Watsonville strike challenges a view on the left equating militancy with oppositionism, and the ultimate strategy with the general strike. What was so inspirational about the Watsonville strikers was their ability to weigh the risks and gains of each possible course of action, and carry out their decisions in a united, disciplined way. Making the hated Teamster officials function as tactical allies rather than antagonists was not an effort at a “middle way,” but a recognition of the necessity to unite as many forces as possible around the most advanced program possible–not only to win the immediate battle but to strengthen and preserve the workers’ forces for the long-term battle.

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Peter Shapiro is a labor writer for Unity newspaper in San Francisco.