Thursday, November 30, 2000
The summer of 1999 was a low point for labor on the Central Coast. In June, the United Farmworkers of America lost its hard-fought election bid to represent workers at the nation''s largest employer of strawberry pickers, Coastal Berry of Watsonville. Just one month later, when 750 Teamsters Union workers at Basic Vegetable Products'' King City plant went on strike, scab labor--including plenty of King City residents--streamed into the garlic and onion processing plant, eager to fill vacated jobs.
Despite the Teamsters'' own show of solidarity, and despite the fact that nearly one-tenth of the King City work force was employed by Basic Vegetable, the union couldn''t muster enough community support to stare down the company. Like the UFW in the strawberry fields, the Teamsters began to seem almost impotent.
Now, some 17 long months since Basic workers took up their picket signs, the union is seeing a glimmer of hope. On Nov. 8, Gilroy Foods, a division of corporate giant Con Agra Foods, Inc., announced that it had acquired Basic Vegetable Products, including the King City garlic and onion processing plant.
While the Teamsters don''t yet know if the sale will ultimately help them achieve their contract negotiation goals, they''re taking at least partial credit for forcing the sale. They''re also looking less like a defeated army and a bit more like David when he took on Goliath.
Gilroy Foods has already offered permanent employment to all the workers who are currently working at the newly acquired King City plant, and it has extended invitations to apply for work to all of the strikers.
The company has also met with Teamsters negotiators and recognized the Local 890 chapter of the union as the legitimate bargaining unit for the King City plant. According to Gilroy Foods spokeswoman Karen Savinski, the company has "agreed to meet with the union and begin good faith negotiations." Three negotiating sessions have been scheduled for December.
Local 890 Secretary/Treasurer Tony Gonzalez, who works in the Teamsters'' Gilroy office, explains that the union''s past experience with Gilroy Foods has been relatively positive. Just months before the Basic workers went on strike, the union negotiated a three-year contract that included raises and improved pension and dental benefits for workers at Gilroy Foods'' garlic and onion processing plant in Gilroy.
Union representatives have long said that what they wanted to get out of Basic Vegetable was a contract comparable to this Gilroy Foods contract.
The Local 890 representative for the King City plant, Steve Garcia, says the union''s goal will be to get workers back into the plant based on seniority, but he expects there will be room for both strikers and replacement workers because some striking workers have moved on to other employment. Garcia concedes that "there may be some apprehension" in the plant and throughout King City about what will happen to the replacement workers. But he doesn''t foresee a repeat of the acrimony and violence that developed in the initial months of the strike.
Neither Gilroy Foods, a Basic Vegetable competitor, nor Basic American Foods, the former owner of Basic Vegetable, are commenting on either the terms of the sale or the reasons for it. Financial troubles unrelated to the strike may lie at the heart of the decision to sell--particularly given that Basic Vegetable claimed from the outset that it needed to cut labor costs due to tightening competition.
Nonetheless, Teamsters officials are convinced their strike "had a lot to do with" the decision because only 80 out of the 750 strikers have returned to the Basic Vegetable plant.
"Basic had to hire anyone who walked through the door," says Garcia. "There''s no way you can replace all that experience [of the striking workers] and expect things are going to run the same." As plants have become more technology intensive, he explains, even clean-up crews have had to become more specialized and knowledgeable about the way specific machinery functions.
Indeed, despite early claims by Basic that the plant was running smoothly with fewer workers than before the strike, Teamsters representative Mike Johnston claims the plant "never even got up to 60 percent production in the second year of the strike."
Johnston also is convinced that the Teamsters-led boycott of Basic American Foods'' dried mashed potatoes and refried beans factored into the decision to sell. According to Johnston, all jails and public hospitals in Contra Costa, Santa Clara, San Mateo, San Francisco and Alameda counties participated in the boycott, as well as school districts representing one-quarter of California''s K-12 students.
In Johnston''s view, the strike and boycott have been victories not just for the Teamsters but for all union labor. "It''s not a battle we looked for," he says. Yet "the net result is a real strengthening, certainly of our union, and that''s not insignificant because we are the largest union in the region. That helps any union out there."