Strike against the right

Charles Brown CharlesB at
Thu Nov 11 11:46:34 MST 1999

By David Bacon and Bill Berkowitz

        KING CITY, CA (11/8/99) -- King City is a tough agricultural town
about an hour south of Salinas, at the high end of the long, thin valley
that bills itself as the vegetable capital of the world.  In King City,
vegetables are king -- people mostly work in the fields picking them, or in
the huge Basic Vegetable Products plant, drying garlic and onions for
shipment all over the world.
        It's been the height of the harvest season since June, but for the
last four months, the movement of vegetables through the city and its plant
has slowed to a trickle.  Instead of running the production lines around
the clock, Basic Vegetable's 750 workers have been standing guard in the
streets outside.  In front of the huge dryers, their picket lines are
squeezing the plant's output to a fraction of its normal level, while life
in this workaday town has ground almost to a halt.
        Like the many strikes that have embroiled California's canneries,
packing sheds and food processing plants over the last two decades, this
one is not driven by demands for vastly increased salaries and benefits. In
fact, the single hottest demand has come from the company.  Basic
Vegetables has called for the workers and their union to pay the costs the
company has incurred in breaking their strike.
        The conflict in King City is driven as much by ideology as
economics.  Company founder Jaquelin Hume, a stalwart of San Francisco's
Republican Party who died in 1991, helped create the highly-developed
conservative infrastructure of think tanks, policy institutes and
foundations which perpetuate the right-wing revolution of the 1990s.  Today
Hume's son William carries on the family's political legacy, providing the
financial seed money for many of the state's most notorious right-wing
"wedge" initiatives, political campaigns and candidates.
        The Hume family celebrates the free market.  In 1983, with the
encouragement of President Ronald Reagan and Attorney General Ed Meese,
Hume founded Citizens for America, a right-wing lobbying group which,
according to columnist Sidney Blumenthal, aimed at "organizing chapters in
every Congressional district in the land, bringing the message of the free
market and the free world to the grass roots."
        In King City, the Hume family's devotion to the free market is more
than an abstract principle.  "I have no question that the company wants to
break our union," says Fritz Conle, organizer for Teamsters Local 890.
"The company has seven other plants, and I think they're using us to teach
them a lesson.  They don't ever want to see a strike at any of their
facilities again."
        The King City conflict began when the union's contract expired last
summer.  In bargaining for a new one, workers asked for 2% wage increases
in each of three years, and no cuts in existing benefits.  But the company
put concessions on the table.  It proposed cutting workers' hours from 8 to
7.5 per day, which would have substantially reduced the income of the
plant's seasonal workers, who only work six months out of the year.
Further, Basic Vegetable demanded the right to contract out 30 permanent
year-round jobs. These are jobs for the most part held by workers who have
used their long years of seniority to get off the production line.
        "They're older folks, the mothers and aunts of many of us," says
striker Jose Medico.  "Many of them wouldn't be able to handle it if they
had to go back onto the line at their age."
        Behind the demands for concessions, is a distinctly un-free market
idea, strikers allege.  In the early 1990s, Basic Vegetable tried to expand
into the world market, and built plants in Spain and Mexico.  However, the
overseas ventures turned out to be big money-losers, and were eventually
shut down.  "But instead of accepting their losses, now they want us to pay
the bill," says striker Saul Venegas.  Conle asserts that there's no
question that the King City plant makes a healthy profit for The Basic
Companies, its parent corporation.
        Basic Vegetable spokesperson Jay Jory, of the Fresno-based law firm
Jory, Peterson, Watkins and Smith disagreed with Conle, saying that the
plant had not being doing very well financially.  Jory cited a study by the
Bain Group which, according to the company, "revealed...that BVP's major
competitor was gaining market share and enjoyed a significant advantage in
labor costs."  The plant was facing a potential shut down, said Jory, and
there needed to be "a belt tightening throughout the company...[to make the
plant]more productive and more efficient."
        Once workers rejected the concessions and struck the plant on July
7, company demands escalated.  Basic Vegetable proposed eliminating the
union pension plan completely, replacing it with a 30¢/hour contribution to
a 401k savings account.  It proposed keeping the wages of newly-hired
workers $3/hour below those already in the workforce, and charging them
$180/month for healthcare.  The company wanted vastly increased
subcontracting rights, and the ability to grant promotions to whoever they
wanted, rather than going by seniority.  The final straw for the workers
was when company negotiators proposed that strikers pay an additional
$20/month for their medical care until the company's strike-related costs
had been repaid.
        When the union filed unfair bargaining charges with the National
Labor Relations Board, the last demand was withdrawn, but the rest still
        At the beginning of the strike the company immediately began hiring
strikebreakers, stashing them at motels in King City and nearby Soledad,
and even brought in busloads from other rural towns.  Strikers claim that
local jails have also been a source of recruits.  At the end of September,
Basic Vegetable announced it had permanently replaced its striking workers.
They could return to work, the company said, but only to about 100
temporary seasonal jobs.  The rest, and best, of the jobs would now belong
to replacement workers.
        Bringing in strikebreakers has been the source of violence and
increased confrontations.  On August 18, a car full of strikers followed a
bus carrying strikebreakers back to the small town of Avenal, on the
Westside of the Central Valley, over the mountains from King City.  As
strikers, leaflets in hand, sought to talk to workers getting off the bus
to go home, they were instead confronted and beaten.  One striker ran down
the street, pursued by his adversaries.  A local woman, taking her children
home, passed by in her car and opened the door, urging him to take refuge
inside. Her car windows were broken out as her children and grandchildren
watched in terror.
        "This attack was orchestrated by Pedro [Ayala], a labor contractor
for Basic who, upon getting off the bus yelled that the company had given
them the 'green light' to physically injure the strikers," said a statement
issued by Local 890.  Jory denies this version of events and claims that
"Basic had nothing to do with this incident," and that it was union
supporters who initiated the violence.
        What Basic Vegetable is doing in King City is hauntingly familiar
to many other Teamster Union locals in rural California.  In 1983,
Watsonville Canning and Frozen Foods forced Local 912 into a 19-month
strike over similar concessions, which the union finally won.  But
subsequent strikes were lost at the United Foods and Ganges Brothers
processing plants in the late 1980s, and local Teamster unions broken.  In
1994, Local 601 struck over concessions demanded by Diamond Walnut at its
huge plant in Stockton. The strike continues today, making it one of the
longest in U.S. labor history.
        While strikers sit in the dusty street in front of the plant,
William "Jerry" Hume seems unconcerned.  When asked if he thought Hume
should step in and try to help settle the strike, Jory said that would be
unnecessary since there is already a negotiating team in place.  Instead,
on October 30, Hume co-chaired a lavish banquet at the Ritz-Carlton hotel
given by San Francisco's conservative Pacific Research Institute, whose
keynote speaker was Lady Margaret Thatcher, hailed by PRI as the
"progenitor of Britain's privatization movement."
        Jerry Hume is only following in his father's political footsteps.
In 1933, Jaquelin Hume and his brother Bill, established the Basic
Companies, which became the world's largest processor of dehydrated onions
and garlic. Jack Hume was part of a small coterie of conservative
California businessmen who were longtime friends and financial backers of
Ronald Reagan - encouraging his entry into public life, hiring his
political consultants and bankrolling his 1966 gubernatorial campaign.  He
joined Justin Dart, the drugstore tycoon; Holmes Tuttle, the automobile
dealer; Earle Jorgensen, the steel distributor and others in Reagan's
unofficial "Kitchen Cabinet."
        When Reagan backers needed an organization to lobby for their
domestic and foreign policy agenda, they turned to Jack Hume, who founded
Citizens for America (CFA) with Reagan's blessing in 1983.  The story of
Citizens for America is a fascinating study of how, over the past two
decades, the conservative movement has been able to build strong
well-funded institutions in a relatively short time, deploy them
strategically, and jettison them when they no longer were useful.
Hume had a vision - ensuring that the Reagan ideology would be sustained
well beyond the Reagan Presidency.  He hired Lew Lehrman as chairman, a
young retired entrepreneur, who made his fortune building the Rite-Aid
drugstore empire and then spent part of it on a failed bid to unseat New
York's Governor Mario Cuomo.
        In 1985, while Congress was debating aid to the Nicaraguan contras,
CFA, with Reagan's blessing, convened a conference in Angola of
counter-revolutionary terrorists from four countries, brought together to
form the "Democratic International."  Attendees included Jonas Savimbi,
head of the National Union for the Total Independence of Angola (then
supported by the CIA and South Africa's apartheid government); Adolfo
Calero, leader of the 15,000-man Nicaraguan Democratic Force; Ghulam Wardak
of the Islamic Unity of Afghanistan Mujahedeen; and Pa Kao Her of the
Ethnics Liberation Organization of Laos.
        At the time of the conference, the CIA had already given the Afghan
rebels $250 million, and had funneled another $80 million to the Calero's
Nicaraguan contras.  Savimbi's UNITA still wreaks havoc in Angola today,
although the CIA says it no longer funds the organization.
        Continuing his father's conservative advocacy, William Hume has
championed school vouchers and other privatization efforts.  He was
appointed to the California State Board of Education by Gov. Pete Wilson.
During his Senate confirmation hearings he was criticized for passing out
copies of Charles Murray's notorious book, "The Bell Curve," which tries to
put a scientific spin on racist eugenics and argues that whites have higher
IQs than African Americans. He is currently Chairman of the board of the
Center for Education Reform, which pushes school vouchers and charter
schools.  Since 1993 Hume has served as a trustee of the conservative
Heritage Foundation.
        One of Hume's pet projects is the Foundation for Teaching Economics
(FTE), founded by his father in 1975 "in response to his concern that many
young people were not being taught the basic concepts of market economics."
FTE promotes free-market principles by "helping economics teachers become
more effective educators," and by "introduc[ing] young individuals,
selected for their leadership potential, to an economic way of thinking
about national and international issues."
        However, funding right-wing causes is where Hume really shines.
According to the Citizenship Project, a community-based organization
founded by Mexican immigrants and unionists in Salinas, and DataCenter's
ImpactResearch Team, Hume and his family have contributed heavily to dozens
of right-wing causes and candidates, including:
        * 1995 -- $100,000 to the California Republican Party;;

        * April 1995 -- $25,000 from William's wife Patricia to Proposition
209, California's anti-affirmation action initiative;
        * 1996 -- $150,000 to the California Republican Party; $100,000 to
the Governor Pete Wilson Committee;
        * April 1998 and May 1998 - two $100,000 contributions to
Californian for Paycheck Protection (Proposition 226), the anti-union
ballot initiative;
        * 1998 -- $50,000 to the campaign for Proposition 227, the Ron
Unz-sponsored initiative which banned bilingual education in California;
        * 1996-98 --  $105,000 to school voucher initiatives in Oregon,
Colorado and Wisconsin, and $20,000 to Gloria Matta Tuchman, anti-bilingual
education and pro-school voucher spokesperson, and candidate for California
State Superintendent of Schools.  Hume gave an additional $100,000 to
Tuchman one week before the November 1988 election.
        In addition to these contributions, Hume gave the RNC/Republican
National State Elections Committee over $165,000 in 1999, and donated
$1,000 or more to the campaigns of George W. Bush and Sen. Phil Gramm
(R-TX).  This year Hume also gave at least $1000 to Sen. Gordon Smith
(R-OR).  Smith is co-sponsor of two Senate bills which would allow growers
to bring workers into the country, and make their legal immigration status
dependent on their jobs.  This would be a big step towards reestablishing
the old "bracero" contract labor program, which held immigrant farmworkers
as virtual indentured servants through the 40s and 50s.  A renewed
"bracero" program would reduce farmworker wages drastically, providing an
enormous financial reward for the growers who supply the Basic Vegetable
plant with its garlic and onions.
        While Hume continues his political fundraising for Republicans, the
union in King City is escalating its campaign. Basic Vegetable counts among
its clients a number corporations with high-profile consumer food products
- Kraft, Lipton,  McDonalds, Church's Chicken, Taco Bell, Pizza Hut, Cisco,
Maizena and Nestle.  The union intends to focus attention on their use of
products from the struck plant.  On November  4, hundreds of strikers
surrounded the Transamerica pyramid on Montgomery St., where the
corporation has its headquarters, in a move designed to make the company's
actions a political issue in San Francisco.
         Workers hold a weekly candlelight vigil and prayer service every
Friday night from 11PM to midnight outside the plant.  And on November 14,
strikers and supporters from several Salinas Valley communities will be
marching from the King City park, through downtown and out to the plant for
a major rally.
        The vegetable season is drawing to a close in King City, and it
appears like the strike may last at least until next year's season begins
in May.  Thus far, only 25 of the 750 strikers have returned to work.  "If
we lose the strike, and the union too, the only other work here in King
City is in the fields," explains striker Lupe Vasquez, who has worked at
Basic Vegetable for 31 years.  "That's where many of us started years ago,
and we don't want to go back.  With a secure, union job at Basic Vegetable,
we've been able to settle down, buy homes, send our kids to college, and
have a much better life.  That's why we're fighting so hard - we won't give
that up."


David Bacon, photographer and associate editor for Pacific News Service, is
a regular Bay Guardian contributor.  Bill Berkowitz, edits CultureWatch, a
monthly newsletter tracking the conservative movement, published by
Oakland's DataCenter (culturewatch at
david bacon - labornet email            david bacon
internet:       dbacon at      1631 channing way
phone:          510.549.0291            berkeley, ca  94703

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