The history of labor movements is an essential history. Without the stories and analysis of the organizing struggles of working people in the past, those of us who are workers today would find the task of organizing for fair wages and decent working conditions even more difficult than they already are. This fact is a primary reason the history of labor movements—of union organizing and strikes—is rarely taught to workers or their children. It is also a reason labor reporters no longer are found on the staff of mainstream media outlets and labor classes are few and far between in universities and colleges. Most importantly, and probably most detrimental to working people, the lack of knowledge concerning the historical and current struggles of working people for wages and dignity is a big reason right wing rulers like Governor Scott Walker in Wisconsin can destroy the unions of thousands of workers with the consent of thousands of others.
This dismal reality is why I am both cheered and compelled to champion labor histories when they are published. That task becomes considerably easier when the book in question is well-written, fast-paced, and inspiring. I just finished reading such a book—Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike 1985-87. This masterpiece of the genre is simultaneously an education in labor organizing in the multinational workplace and a stirring tale of struggle by some of U.S. capitalism’s most exploited workers. It is a story with many twists and turns and a determination and sense of justice. The publisher, Haymarket Books, is probably the best current publisher of labor history; with this book both Haymarket and the author Peter Shapiro have outdone themselves.
The strike began in 1985. Ronald Reagan was in his second term as president. His first term had made it clear that he hated unions and wanted to help bust as many of them as he could. In addition, the economy was well on its way to the stage that became known as globalization and workers everywhere were suffering the consequences. Jobs were being moved out of the country so their owners could squeeze more profit from the labor forces while simultaneously using the threat of such a move to demand concessions from the workers in the United States. Despite the odds against them, the mostly Latino, mostly female workers in the canneries in Watsonville decided to strike.
At the time, Watsonville’s population was predominantly Spanish speaking. I remember hitching through the burg a year or two earlier and stopping for lunch at a cantina. I had done some day labor in the fields near the town before, but had only seen it from the back of a pickup as we drove back to Oakland after a day of work The food was predominantly Mexican, the beer choices were Tecate and Modelo and the jukebox featured only two musical artists who were not singing in Spanish—The Doors and the Rolling Stones. It was like being in a town in Baja or on the Mexican-Texas border.
The town’s council and landowners, however, were mostly Anglo/white. Like towns and cities throughout the US Southwest, they had arranged the political situation so they could dominate. The lack of Latino political power in Watsonville was another aspect of this strike. Perhaps the most important result of the workers’ campaign was the realignment of political power so that non-Anglos representation in civil affairs was more representative than ever before. Of course, money still trumps everything else in a capitalist system.
Shapiro relates the intricacies of organizing and maintaining the strike, something made even more difficult given the situation within the Teamsters Union, who represented the cannery workers. In part because of how the international union was organized and in part because of the entrenched power of the man who had run the local for decades, conflicts arose inside the strikers’ various committees and meetings. In addition, personal resentments, personality clashes and political differences occasionally challenged the unity any such endeavor requires. Underlying these currents was the fact that many of the strikers were women, whose insistence on inclusion was (and continues to be) a challenge to unions traditionally dominated by men. However, without the women there could be no strike. Song of the Stubborn One Thousand does a masterful job at weaving these lines of the narrative into a cohesive and elucidating tale of sacrifice and inspiration.
The tale of struggle told in this book is interesting enough to go gain the readership of labor history’s typical audience of students, labor organizers and leftists. The vivid rapid-paced nature of Peter Shapiro’s narrative could propel it beyond that audience. Not only does the text share the same environment of some of John Steinbeck’s best novels, it even reads like one of them on occasion. In fact, Watsonville was actually the town Steinbeck set the novel In Dubious Battle in. Even though the Watsonville strike took place some fifty years later, some of the same types of characters can be found in both books: communists, distressed workers at the mercy of heartless owners, frustrated organizers and union members ready for sabotage and destruction, and, mostly, a group of committed workers fighting to make their lives better and achieve a broader social justice.
In a world where labor is exploited even more than it was in 1985, Song of the Stubborn One Thousand is a study guide, a lesson, and an inspiration for the working people of today. In a time when recent electoral results portend a working class divided at the behest of the rulers, the Watsonville canning strike of 1985 provides a hopeful and progressive alternative.