“The strike was a step forward,” Augustín Sosa, a fork lift operator, told the Militant. “They saw what we can do when we unite.”
The workers, members of Teamsters Local 890, went on strike June 23, on the heels of victories at two other vegetable processing plants in the area — Taylor Farms in Salinas, where a two-day walkout won an immediate $1.50 an hour raise, and Earthbound Farms in San Juan Bautista where workers walked out and quickly won $2.
Unlike the other walkouts, where the bosses conceded without a big fight, San Benito Foods responded by attacking the workers. They brought in replacement workers, threatened the strikers with termination if they didn’t come back to work and said they were going to cut off workers’ medical insurance.
Despite all this, not one worker crossed the picket line. Some of the replacement workers were convinced by strikers they shouldn’t take the jobs.
They got solidarity from other workers. Railroad workers sent to pick up eight box cars of canned product wouldn’t cross the picket line and left the cars behind.
“I was home when I got the call,” said Isabel Alvidrez, one of the strikers. “I rushed with others to meet the train. We held up our signs and the workers told us they would not cross.” Later that week the workers met the train again and again nothing moved.
Work at the plant is seasonal. The strike was initiated by the some 100 year-round workers preparing the plant for the busy season. Many of the seasonal workers joined them. In mid-July when the tomatoes begin to pour in, the number of workers will grow to over 400. All the workers, both full time and seasonal, are members of the union.
The workers have seen cutback after cutback in their wages and working conditions over the years. This is especially true of the seasonal workers who lost their medical insurance and pensions.
“Every contract has been take, take, take,” said Raymundo Fregoso, who has worked at the plant for 16 years as a fork lift operator. Like many of the year-round workers, he said he was fighting for the seasonal workers, many of them women who work in areas where it’s over 100 degrees. “They work really hard seven days a week and when someone doesn’t show up they have to work mandatory overtime for 12 hours,” he said. “They’re on their feet all day.”
“It’s good we went on strike and won something,” said Maria Castañeda, a picket captain and seasonal worker for 33 years. “But I think we should have gotten more.”
Like many seasonal workers, she will now make $12.96 an hour. In the last two years of the contract, since the raises are based on percentages, those in higher-paid brackets will receive more. Castañeda said that for her and many seasonal workers the raises will be about 30 cents per year. “This is just the beginning of our fight,” she said.
The strikers got support from the community, with people bringing water and food. Steven Hatch, a warehouse worker who is part of a Teamster organizing drive at Cal Cartage, drove up from Los Angeles with Socialist Workers Party member Ellie Garcia to extend solidarity. “You’ve done a brave thing here. You deserve credit,” Hatch told San Benito workers when they arrived in Hollister and found the strike had just ended. “The workers at Cal Cartage will benefit by hearing about the victories won here.”
Nora Danielson contributed to this article.
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