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The Brutality of San Jose's Cannery System

Updated: Jan 20, 2021

Long before there was a Silicon Valley, Santa Clara Valley was known for another industry. It was home of the fruit and vegetable food processing. By the early twentieth century, this industry was possibly the largest in the world.

Demand for canned fruits and vegetables skyrocketed worldwide, partially as a result of the Panama Canal opening and World War I. The volume of such shipments was second only to petroleum in terms of its economic importance to California.

Such profits and growth prompted rapid consolidation of the industry. Cannery owners attempted to keep labor cheap by resisting unionization.

While men held full-time positions as mechanics and warehousemen, the vast majority of workers were women who labored seasonally along cannery lines.

Cannery owners preferred women believing that they were more nimble with the tasks of sorting, peeling, and slicing.

By 1930, these canneries were the largest employers of women in the state. About half of the workers were Italian, followed by Portuguese and Mexican, women. Most were immigrants.

The hours were long, up to eighteen hours a day, ninety-six hours a week. Many women reported damage to their hands; injuries suffered from the nicks and cuts from slicing fruit by hand. The acidity of the fruit caused infections and burnt skin.

Others caught their fingers and hands in the processing machines. And women were paid less than men.

In 1917, a newly formed union called a strike and hundreds of Italian workers in San Jose walked off the line to protest low wages, long hours and unsafe working conditions. At the time it was the largest strike in the state’s fruit industry.

Facing mass picketing and demonstrations, cannery owners prompted government authorities to call in the National Guard, charging the strike was an act of war sabotage. The local paper suggested that foreign agents were at play. Immigrants were questioned as to their national loyalty. The strike was eventually settled, resulting in an agreement that benefitted only male workers.

It was not until later that the Cannery and Agricultural Workers’ Industrial Union (CAWIU) organized workers in response to owners cutting wages again. This time by nearly twenty-five percent in 1931.

Accordingly, labor activist Caroline Decker and the CAWIU called a strike, fought for restoration of wages, time-and-a-half for working more than eight hours, union recognition, and equal pay for equal work.

Owners accused the strikers as being led by ‘outside Communist agitators’ and they brought in scabs who were protected with armed guards. Organizers were arrested and the response was two thousand strikers demonstrated in St. James Park in the early 1930s.

At one rally, speakers were hauled off one by one for ‘disturbing the peace’ until young women, described in the local paper as “amazons,” took to the podium and challenged the crowd to march to City Hall. They did. Demonstrators were met by police officers, sheriff deputies, vigilantes, blackjacks and fire hoses. Their demands were not met.

Nonetheless, the CAWIU persisted and launched a series of organizing drives in canneries as well as in the fields, resulting in numerous strikes against growers throughout the state.

In November 1933, cannery owners as well as representatives from Southern Pacific, PG&E, Bank of America and other large corporate interests met to implement a unified strategy to counter union organizing. This strategy included collecting information on labor agitators, crushing CAWIU efforts, and discredit New Deal officials who they believed protected unionization.

Later that month, the San Jose lynchings occurred. While there may have been no direct connection, that event terrified CAWIU leaders. If a mob could break into a county jail and carry out what the vigilantes called a “necktie party” with the blessing of the Governor and local leaders, then it was not farfetched to fear what these citizens might do to labor leaders who had been labeled Communists.

Soon thereafter, organized opposition to labor in San Jose did not disappear. This included an attack at the CAWIU headquarters on Post Street:

Armed with bright new pick handles, their faces grim, eyes shining with

Steady purpose, a large band of ‘vigilantes’ composed of irate citizens,

including many war veterans, smashed their way into three Communist

‘hotspots’ here last night, seized a mass of red literature, and severely

beat nine assorted radicals.

By 1934, the CAWIU re-emerged in Sacramento, close to agriculture, in proximity to the state’s power brokers. However, at the behest of local government authorities, sheriff deputies throughout California raided union offices. They also arrested top CAWIU leaders charging them with criminal syndicalism.

After a lengthy trial, a few were acquitted, eight were sent to prison, including Caroline Decker.

With union organizers driven out of town by vigilantes and enabled by local law enforcement, Santa Clara Valley had a reputation for brutality.

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