At a time when organized labor was in headlong retreat, the Watsonville Canning strike was a dramatic show of power by women workers, whose struggle became a rallying point for the Chicano movement. Inspired by this group of mostly Mexican women, Peter Shapiro reflects on how he found hope amidst the darkness brought on by Reagan-era attacks on labor, and how he was moved to write the powerful new book Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985-87.
The 1980s were a dark time for organized labor. Mass layoffs and plant closings decimated the industrial Midwest and reduced once-powerful unions to a shadow of their former selves. Private employers, aided by union-busting law firms, found they could drive unions out of their plants by forcing a strike, then holding out until twelve months had passed and the union could be legally decertified.
At the time I was serving as labor editor of a left-wing newspaper, which sought to persuade its readers that an effective movement for working class political power was not only necessary, but possible. As the person responsible for its labor coverage, I was often hard-pressed to find encouraging things to say about what often seemed like a continuing series of disasters.
Under the circumstances, the Watsonville Canning strike was a revelation. Here was a group of workers, most of them Mexican women with little or no strike experience, who summoned the resources to organize and run their strike when their largely dysfunctional Teamsters local had failed to do so. Neglected by the higher levels of the Teamsters union for years, they managed to engage its support and keep it almost to the end of the strike, without surrendering their own independence and initiative. They foiled the attempt to decertify their union; they drove the plant owner to the brink of bankruptcy, forced him to sell his plant, and finally won a contract from the new owner after a five-day wildcat.
Their story cried out to be told, but it was largely ignored at the time by the national media. Even the left press neglected it, focusing instead on the more sensational struggles at Hormel, with rebellious Local P-9 waging its ultimately unsuccessful challenge to a hidebound international union.
The Watsonville strikers were not the kind of people who were comfortable in the limelight. “Some people call us heroes,” one of them said after it was over. “I don’t know. We did what we had to do.” Many were single mothers, most were Spanish speaking, as many as 35 percent were undocumented.
Such people have traditionally been relegated to the fringes of the labor movement. Yet here they were, successfully confronting the challenges that had confounded union members with far more experience and resources at their disposal.
When the Watsonville Canning struggle took place, I was working at the Oakland post office. My co-workers and I participated in a food drive, which raised 5,000 pounds of canned goods for the strikers. I went to the big rallies in Watsonville and encouraged co-workers to come with me to support committee meetings. I made up my mind that, once the circumstances of my life allowed it, I would write a detailed account of the strike.
In practice, that meant waiting until I retired from the Postal Service more than two decades later. Finally I had time to pore through the strike documents at the Labor Archives and Research Center at San Francisco State University; track down strikers and others who had played a role in the struggle; record their memories and fashion them into what I hoped was a coherent (and accurate) narrative.
It was a humbling experience. The sheer complexity of the story reined in any temptation to make facile generalizations or impose preconceived assumptions. A wide range of forces were involved in the strike and contributed to its success, despite often conflicting agendas; the more I learned about them, the more I appreciated how important it is to know where people are coming from, why they act as they do, why even those you disagree with require a measure of empathy and respect. People on the left often talk about the united front (what more respectable types call coalition politics). It’s supposed to be essential to the success of any mass movement. But it is too often misunderstood. Researching this book, I got a rigorous education on the subject.
More than anything else, though, I came away from this project with a renewed appreciation for the strikers, whose sacrifices, steadfastness, resourcefulness and dignity made everything possible. You don’t have to romanticize them or turn them into revolutionary icons to see how their experience speaks to the rest of us who likewise yearn for a more just society and a better world.