Posted by: kokoro | 12th Feb, 2009

Ruiz and Weber readings

Both the Ruiz and Weber readings discuss the place of Mexican women in the labor movement in California. Both in the canning industry and farming, women played a major part in creating social systems of community and solidarity within the workforce, which was able to translate into union organization.

During the interwar period many Mexicans immigrated to the United States. Most became agricultural workers, but food processing also employed a fair number of Mexicans, especially women.

In the canning industry a “cannery culture” was created during the 1930s, based on a collective identity created by family ties, job segregation by gender, and harsh working conditions. Mexican women encouraged their friends to take jobs, and they initiated newcomers into the rigors of cannery life. Working under common conditions with common concerns also created friendships or alliances that crossed family and ethnic lines.

In 1937 the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America was organized as a CIO affiliate. UCAPAWA was left-oriented, and deliberately recruited black, Mexican, and female organizers and aimed many of its organizing campaigns at minorities. All but thirty California Sanitary Canning Company (Cal San) workers joined the union, but the owners, the Shapiro brothers, refused to recognize the union.

On 31 August 1939, the nearly all four hundred and thirty workers at Cal San walked out and created a picket line. They demanded higher wages, better working conditions, dismissal of supervisors, recognition of their union (Local 75), and a closed shop.

Early in the strike, organizers made use of another tactic, the secondary boycott. Leaders approached the managers of local groceries in LA and urged them to not purchase Cal San products. Forty grocers followed the request, making the tactic successful. Another successful tactic was sending children to walk picket lines on the Shapiros’ front lawns, which created community pressures on the brothers to negotiate.

The workers failed to win an elimination of the piece rate system, but they were given a wage increase, and many supervisors were fired. They also successfully negotiated a closed shop contract. The Local 75 also helped in organizing other unions.

The second reading uses an oral interview with a Mexican farmer worker, named Mrs. Valdez. Before 1930, the protests that arose from agricultural workers towards their employers were unorganized and spontaneous reactions to poor wages and working conditions. In the 1930s, laborers began organizing with unions, a process made easier by the mutual aid societies and close community/heritage ties already in place between Mexican workers. In 1933 there was a strike by cotton workers in the San Joaquin Valley, in which Mexican women played an important part, including Mrs. Valdez.

During the strike Mexican women ran the kitchens, cared for their children, and marched on picket lines. They even confronted strikebreakers and willing restored to violence against them. Mrs. Valdez distinctly recalls her two major concerns as providing for her family and her role as a striker. Her interests as a Mexican worker were shaped in the context of her interests as a woman, mother, and wife, and as a result her biggest concerns and memories about the strike revolve around the issue of food.

The reading also provides as interesting discussion on the usefulness of oral histories. While they have certain limitations regarding the memory, perspective, and knowledge of the interviewee, oral histories contain valuable information. They provide human dimensions to history that words alone can’t express. Mrs. Valdez, for instance, expresses how she felt about the groups and people and events around her, not just through words, but also through tone of voice and through movement and expression. Oral histories, particularly those of minorities, added to the written word, can provide a fuller picture of historical events.

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