Stand By Me: Sun-Maid Workers Win By Sticking Together

Father Lupe of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church held a mass on the picket line for a couple hundred strikers. Many of his parishioners work at the Sun-Maid factory. Photo: Thomas Weilar

Teamsters who package and process raisins for Sun-Maid succeeded in “raisin” their wages with a two-week strike in September.

Sun-Maid, the largest raisin processing company in the world, keeps its headquarters in the small city of Kingsburg, California, just 20 miles south of Fresno. At the factory, workers represented by Teamsters Local 431 work on and coordinate assembly lines that receive, process, inspect, package, and ship raisins throughout the world.

New CEO Harry Overly, who had been on the job less than a year, didn’t know who he was dealing with. Overly met most of them for the first time last spring at an all-staff meeting where he complained about how much the employees cost the company. In light of this disrespect, stalled negotiations, and Sun-Maid’s unwillingness to offer a fair proposal, the union’s bargaining team reluctantly brought a tentative agreement to the membership.

Not surprisingly, the workers overwhelmingly rejected the pact and voted to go on strike. And strike they did, 500 strong, for 16 long days.

DANCIN’ CALIFORNIA RAISINS

The 500 workers walked off the job on September 10. The biggest issue: Sun-Maid expected workers to make monthly contributions towards their high-deductible health care plan.

Although workers weren’t enthused about the high-deductible plan, the monthly costs were the dealbreaker. These new out-of-pocket expenses would have effectively eliminated their pay increase.

“If Sun-Maid wants us to contribute to our health care plan, fine—but at least provide us enough of a raise that’s not just eaten up by these monthly contributions!” said Yolanda Negrete, a machine operator and negotiating committee member who’s worked at the plant for 39 years.

Most of the workers are Hispanic and Punjabi—many of them first-generation immigrants with limited English. “This strike brought all of us in the factory closer together,” said Harpreet Rai, a quality inspector who has worked at Sun-Maid for 35 years. She helped translate for her Punjabi co-workers during the strike.

“My Latino colleagues enjoyed our Punjabi music and food on the picket line, and we enjoyed theirs,” Rai said. “We’re one big family!”

Mexican Independence Day fell on September 16, in the midst of the strike—and that day’s picket line turned into an all-out celebration. Some workers wore traditional Mexican dresses. The Mexican flag flew alongside the American flag. Men and women danced to mariachi music, and everyone enjoyed homemade Mexican food.

Shouts of “Viva México” (Long live Mexico) intermingled with slogans of “Sun-Maid unfair,” “Sí se puede” (Yes we can), and “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido” (The people united will never be defeated).

THROUGH THE GRAPEVINE

The last strike here was in 1997 and lasted four days. Veterans of that strike, including some retirees, provided crucial support and experience.

“Us veterans educated the others about the importance of sticking together,” said Jackson, who has been at the factory for 25 years. Her mother worked at Sun-Maid before her.

“Some workers had differences with one another, but once we were out there on the picket line, we all came together to do what we had to do,” she said. “Just like in 1997, but with more dancing this time around.”

Faith played a large part in motivating the workers to hold a successful 24/7 picket line. Father Lupe of St. Joseph’s Catholic Church in nearby Selma even held a mass on the picket line for a couple hundred strikers. Many of his parishioners work at the Sun-Maid factory.

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“As far as I know, this may have been the first mass held out here in a labor dispute since Cesar Chavez,” said Thomas Weilar of Faith in the Valley, a community organization that brought in clergy who offered prayers with the striking workers.

Rai was moved by the support the workers received from the local Sikh temple, the Selma Gurdwara. “Each day, they kept us going with donations of food and tea,” she said.

The street where workers picketed is named Bethel, which translates from the Hebrew to “House of the Lord.” “When I realized what that meant, I knew we’d be safe no matter what,” said Negrete. “It gave us a sense of hope out there on the line.”

LEAN ON ME

As the strike dragged on, overwhelming support came from allies in the labor movement, such as the local Central Labor Council, the California Teachers Association, UFCW Local 8, and SEIU Local 521.

“The workers on strike are the parents of the students we teach, so we must support them,” said Eva Ruiz, a CTA board member and teacher in the Fresno Unified School District.

Allies set up a GoFundMe online strike fund and raised $5,000 to help the workers and their families. Meanwhile a strike fund established by the Teamsters raised nearly $120,000 from other unions and Teamster locals.

“People we didn’t even know came out to support us,” said Jackson “whether it was bringing food, coffee, water, supplies, or donating money to the strike fund. It was very touching. They came to support us and back us up—friends we didn’t even know we had.”

While most passersby were supportive, every now and then someone would drive by and level racist comments. Teamsters Local 431 President Peter Nunez would have none of it. With the American flag waving behind him, he proclaimed, “We have people driving by giving us the bird, telling us to go back to Mexico, or go back to your own country. This is our country! In this country we fight for what we believe in!”

SIGNED, SEALED, DELIVERED

The strike was successful in slowing down production, according to workers. On the third day, Sun-Maid started to utilize scabs. Striking workers made it really uncomfortable for them by posting up at the entrances and chanting “Shame! Shame!” as they crossed the picket line.

Union members said a number of the scabs didn’t even last a day because Sun-Maid was trying to speed up production so badly, making the working conditions terrible. Some customers of Sun-Maid, including Costco, refused any shipment of raisins during the strike, for fear of receiving a bad product produced by inexperienced workers.

In desperation, about 10 days in, Sun-Maid placed up large electronic marquees that stated, “Sun-Maid Welcomes You Back. No One Will Be Fired Or Face Penalty. Union Has Not Shared Facts With Its Members.” According to Negrete, “When they put that up, that made us so angry! It only strengthened our resolve to keep going.”

A marathon bargaining session culminated in a new tentative agreement that provided the largest salary increase the workers have ever seen. According to negotiating committee member Solomon Barela, who’s worked at Sun-Maid for 42 years, “We even won increases to the employer contribution toward our pension. Sun-Maid even tried to offer tiered raises depending on your job, different amounts for different people, and we beat that back! When it was all said and done, this was a victory for us.”

Workers will start paying a small contribution toward health care premiums, but that’s offset by higher raises. “It’s a true raise this time,” said Barela. Taking into account the raises and increased employer pension contributions, the new contract represents a 9 percent increase in total value compared to what workers were offered before the strike.

Ninety percent voted in favor of the agreement, and workers walked back into the plant on September 26. “It was a tough fight,” said Negrete, “but well worth it.”

Joshua Kob is a union representative for the California Teachers Association based out of its Fresno office.