For women living in California in the early 1930s, the food canning industry was far from a pleasant and fulfilling working environment. Racism, harassment, segregation, and other hardships were part of their daily lives.
The women were targeted because of their ethnic group, with some ethnic groups such as Mexicans being treated poorly. The sociologist Max Sylvius Handman (1885-1939) commented: “The Mexican tends to bring back these slum conditions…even the Negro has managed to climb higher in the general raising of the average standard of living.”
In the workplace, women were trying to earn a living to better provide for their families by working long demanding hours, in substandard conditions for meagre wages, with minorities paid much less than their white counterparts.
Being paid per unit on piecemeal, the management of some canning factories took away their tools because the women were making “too much money”, leaving them to work with their bare hands. Over time, the women became more independent, renting apartments with friends and having an excess of money to purchase items for pleasure to gain more “American respectability”.
Despite the negative attitudes towards Mexican women in particular, the success of the canned fruit and vegetable industry in America between 1939 and 1950 can be closely attributed to them, transforming places such as California into the leading producer of canned food in the country at the time.
Working conditions also started to improve as the public perception and food canning industry became more evolved.
A positive light came in the form of the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (or UCAPAWA). This union provided the women and other minorities with an important voice, encouraging members to voice their opinions and assist in the policy making. In 1936, the American Federation of Labor (AFL) even held a convention in Tampa, Florida, with the goal of trying to convince the leaders of the canning industry to create an international food processing union.
The UCAPAWA certainly had its enemies (some who claimed that they were working for the Communists), but the party started a movement that assisted women and minorities in realizing their collective strength to fight for their rights.
Despite the many groups and protesters trying to shut down the UCAPAWA, the union trudged on and grew into one of the largest and fastest growing unions in California and thus, in 1944, changed its name to the Food, Tobacco, Agriculture and Allied Workers of America (FTA) to accommodate the growing number of industries it represented.
Two of the pioneers of the union movement were Dorothy Ray Healy and Luisa Moreno. They are credited with launching the movement for thousands of cannery workers to be able to organize themselves to form lasting unions.
Healy was the international vice president of the UCAPAWA and took it upon herself to recruit and enrol as many workers as she could from the California Sanitary Canning Company (Cal-San) to form a union. Local 75 was born.
She inspired workers to organize a massive walk-out in peak cannery season. Their demands included a wage increase, a closed shop (only hires union members), removal of the piecemeal system, dismissal of almost every supervisor, and most importantly, recognition of the union.
The outbreak of WW2 led to a necessity by factory owners to accept the terms of the walk-out in order to get production moving.
Most of the demands were met and Local 75 became the first to successfully negotiate a closed shop contract. Luisa Moreno is credited with the dedication and leadership to motivate employees and help them organize neighbouring facilities.
Worker involvement became the most vital part of the entire crusade. Locals 2, 3 and 64 soon followed, and cannery culture became synonymous with unionization. The movement snowballed from there and gave women a newfound power to control and propel their own futures.
Being the largest part of the cannery workforce, women began winning prominent positions in the union and soon, more women than men were in executive roles in certain sectors. Members fought for more benefits that would benefit women and families, such as maternity leave, holiday pay and overtime pay. However, there were those who sought to destroy the union and reduce the members to mere ‘workers’.
The International Brotherhood of Teamsters went to great lengths to rid the nation of the UCAPAWA. American Federation of Labor president William Green was pressured to grant the Teamsters jurisdiction over the California food processing locals. Green was threatened with annihilation of the canneries by Teamsters leader Dave Beck if he did not comply.
To determine who had the authority, a major campaign of 14,000 people was organized by Luisa Moreno to fend off the Teamsters by forcing an election. The workers won the election, but their victory was short-lived and was met with divisiveness and violence as Teamsters worked long and hard to prove the election was fixed and some votes were invalid.
Teamsters refused to ship goods to canneries across the country and many workers lost their jobs. Eventually, the Teamsters won the right to a new election, which they won, resulting in an initial fee of $250 per worker and a monthly dues to be paid into their union or be fired. Since they could no longer remain unemployed, they were ultimately forced to pay the fees.
By 1950 the UCAPAWA and FTA were completely disintegrated, and while many lives were disrupted or even destroyed, those involved unknowingly launched the largest shift in the empowerment and equality of women in the United States.
Written by Julie St Jean
Header Image Credit : Shutterstock