Watsonville, California, a produce powerhouse — July 1985: Mort Console, owner of Watsonville Canning, the major company in town, suddenly cuts wages by 40 percent and reduces health benefits. The factory workers of Teamsters Local 912 immediately vote to go out on strike, just as Console’s anti-union law firm has advised him they would: “Make outrageous demands; the workers will strike. Replace them with scabs. After 12 months, request a union decertification vote, which will then include the strikebreakers too.”

Local 912’s leaders rely on cordial relations with Console. The union’s English-speaking president has very little contact with his mostly female, Spanish-speaking rank and file, nearly half of whom are single mothers.

Uh-oh, you might say, another tale of a noble defeat.

You would be wrong.

When the strike ended a year and a half later, not one striker had crossed the picket line, the local had chosen a new president and the union was transformed. The workers had won against a determined employer who had a lot of support.

The courts — traditional allies of growers and packing companies — weighed in right away: Mass picketing was effectively prohibited. Hundreds of picketers were arrested by the police, who openly sided with the strikebreakers. Strikers were arrested for, among other things, writing down the license numbers of scab vehicles. One grower hired 50 strikebreakers to help keep the plant open, but they found it difficult to even reach their workplace. They were harassed and threatened on and off the job.

The strikers were determined. “Just because you are Catholic,” striker Gloria Betancourt remarked, “doesn’t mean you can’t throw rocks at scabs.” 

Margarita Paramo found herself physically blocking a police car to save another picketer from a police beating. “I don’t know how I did it,” she said later. “The strike did that to people.” 

The strikers hunkered down. They got other jobs, moved in together, fed and clothed each other, and cared for one another’s children. Community organizations, student unions, and churches joined the effort. Rank-and-file union members led the effort to make the local more democratic and responsive.

And when, after a year, the union certification vote came up, the strikers responded. Many were now working in other places, some as far away Mexico, but they showed up and voted overwhelmingly in favor of the union.

Console had overplayed his hand. One fired worker revealed that 20 tons of vegetables unfit for human consumption had been knowingly shipped to distributors. Console and his company were deeply in debt and the union was able to convince his bank to take over the company and find a new owner. After a brief struggle regarding health benefits, a new contract was signed.

When their welfare was threatened, the Watsonville workers had responded as a community. They hung together and challenged Console and his union-busters.

And they won.

— By Bill Morgan, a member of the CFT Labor in the Schools Committee who taught elementary students in San Francisco for 34 years.

Find an excellent blow-by-blow account of the Watsonville strike in Song of the Stubborn One Thousand by Peter Shapiro, published by Haymarket Books last year.