Dried Garlic And A Busted Union
David Bacon & Bill Berkowitz
City, California is a tough agricultural town about an hour south of Salinas. 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, 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 town has ground almost to a halt.
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."
King City conflict began when the union’s contract expired last summer. In
bargaining for a new one, workers asked for 2 percent wage increases in each of
3 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 6 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
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."
In the early
1990s, Basic Vegetable tried to expand into the world market, and built plants
in Spain and Mexico. 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.
spokesperson Jay Jory, of the Fresno-based law firm Jory, Peterson, Watkins and
Smith disagreed with Conle, saying that the plant had not been doing very well
financially. Jory cited a study by the Bain Group that, 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
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 stand.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
Jerry Hume is
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 long-time friends and financial
backers of Ronald Reagan—hiring his political consultants, and bankrolling his
1966 gubernatorial campaign. He joined Justin Dart, the drugstore tycoon; Holmes
Tuttle, the automobile dealer; Earle Jorgen- sen, the steel distributor and
others in Reagan’s unofficial "Kitchen Cabinet."
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 chair, 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.
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 Governor Pete Wilson. During his Senate confirmation hearings he
was criticized for passing out copies of Charles Murray’s 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 chair 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
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
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,
- 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 vou- cher
spokesperson, and candidate for California State Superintendent of Schools.
Hume gave an additional $100,000 to Tuchman one week before the November
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, Sen. Gordon Smith (R-WA), and Sen. Phil Gramm (R-TX). This year
Hume also gave at least $1,000 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
1940s and 1950s. 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.
continues his political fundraising for Republicans, the union in King City is
escalating its campaign. Basic Vegetable counts among its clients a number of
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
It appears 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." Z
David Bacon, photographer and associate editor for Pacific News Service, is a
regular Z contributor. Bill Berkowitz, edits CultureWatch, a
newsletter tracking the conservative movement, published by Oakland’s
DataCenter (culturewatch@datacenter. org).