In the 1985 Watsonville Canning Strike, the longest national strike of its time, nearly 2,000 workers walked out of the cannery. It marked its 30th anniversary on Oct. 15. Former strikers, elected officials and community members gathered at the Watsonville Senior Center to commemorate the historic labor movement that pitted local workers against Richard A. Shaw Frozen Food and Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Company— two of the largest frozen food companies at the time.
Mayor of Watsonville Oscar Rios said the strike inspired many generations to fight for their rights and the strikers’ efforts helped define what Santa Cruz County stands for. Union representatives saw this strike as incredibly impactful for Latina women in Watsonville, who comprised about 85 percent of the strikers.
“The strikers helped change the politics in our city and county,” Rios said to the crowd of about 80.
Local government officials showed the original documentary “Si Se Puede, It Can Be Done.” Afterward, they presented certificates to former strikers to commend the strikers’ hard work and acknowledge the change that stimulated the community, county and nation.
“It was very hard. My work was a part of me and then it was taken from me,” said Clemencia Legorreta, former employee and supervisor at the Watsonville cannery for 30 years. “There was a great sense of desperation amongst the workers, economically.”
The companies threatened to lower workers’ wages from $6.66 to $4.45 an hour in order to compete with cheaper products on the market. Workers, who were mostly Latina women with families and young children, also faced losing health and vacation benefits.
“It was a really challenging time during the strike. I had a 2-year-old daughter and the police were going to detain me because I would take my daughter to the strike in her stroller,” said Marina Valenzuela, who worked at the Watsonville cannery for 38 years.
Because of this, Valenzuela took her daughter to the local child care center while she was striking. The financial burden of the strike restricted her ability to pay for child care, so Valenzuela volunteered her spare time to the center.
Strikers said without one another’s unity and dedication, they wouldn’t have succeeded. During the 19-month strike, strikers kept a sign- in sheet to keep track of those who participated.
“There was not a single day during two years that I did not go. […] It was a list based on pain and necessity,” Valenzuela said.
A battle ensued between The International Brotherhood of Teamsters — the union representing the cannery workers — and the owner of Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Company , Edward T. Console.
After a year and a half of strikes and millions in debt, Watsonville Canning and Frozen Food Company went into foreclosure. In September 1986 the California Department of Food and Agriculture announced an investigation into the company and new ownership was eventually established in February 1987. After several negotiations, the strikers and the company reached an agreement in March — workers received three-year contracts with hourly pay of $5.85 an hour plus benefits, seniority rights and striker amnesty.
“It was a great joy when we finally won,” Valenzuela said. “[…] We all experienced rough times and through our resilience we were able to show the younger generations the value of hard work and not giving up.”
Additional reporting by Alonso Hernandez.