Business / Economy

UPDATED: San Benito Foods union rejects weekend contract offer, vows to continue strike Monday

Union cautioned to wait until after upcoming meeting, but members decide to walk out

Even though San Benito Foods and Teamsters Union 890 are still scheduled for another round of negotiations on June 27, rank-and-file union members opted to strike on Friday, June 23 against the tomato processor that has been a mainstay locally, employing Hollister residents for more than 100 years. Union members told BenitoLink on Saturday, June 24 that San Benito Foods made a contract offer that was summarily rejected.

"The workers of San Benito Foods overwhelmingly rejected the company's offer and the strike will continue," said Jose Perez. "The issues continue to be that there are takeaways and wage levels. The workers will be out at San Benito Foods 6 a.m. Monday morning."

Raymundo Fregoso, who has worked for the company for 17 years, said Friday that the workers need a better contract because their wages are not keeping up with inflation.

“We don’t want a lot,” he said, “we just want a $1-an-hour raise.”

Part-time workers, he said. many of whom have worked for the company each summer for decades, are paid minimum wage. He said the average wage for permanent employees is $11.96 an hour.

“They do hard labor and inside the building it’s over 100 degrees,” Fregoso said, adding that the company also wants to change paying employees from a weekly basis to every two weeks. “It makes a difference for some people and after whatever they have to pay for insurance their take-home pay is a small amount. They need the money every week just so they can pay their bills.”

Perez, the union representative who told BenitoLink May 16 that a strike was possible because San Benito Foods does not “believe in seasonal benefits,” and went on to claim that the company does not “want to give a pay increase knowing that Hollister is a high-rent and high cost-of-living area. They barely pay minimum wage and it’s time that they pay better wages.”

On June 23, he said the union has been negotiating with the company since mid-January.

“It got to the point where the workers decided this was the only way they would be heard,” he said. “This company has been here since the 1930s (actually 1915) and our members’ wages and benefits have not been going up. In fact, seasonal workers used to have a pension and they don’t have one now. They don’t have benefits now.”

Because the canning season has not started yet, Perez said only about 100 of the eventual 450 who will be working are currently employed, and most of those are involved in the strike. He said the canning season was originally scheduled to start July 20, but he now believes it will begin July 10. He said there is presently no processing going on inside the facility because the machines were being serviced in preparation for the season. But since the mechanics are among the strikers, that work is not being done. There is, however, a backlog of product in the warehouses at the far end of Sally Street that needs to be shipped. Four big-rigs were parked along the street waiting for someone to load them. That task eventually came down to supervisorial staff because the union members were picketing there, too.

Perez said the union members were prepared to strike until there was an acceptable contract.

“It might take months, it might take days,” he said. “The company is supposed to give us a proposal on Tuesday (June 27).”

While the union members decided to strike, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters (IBT) and the Joint Council 7 authorized it, Perez said. The union wanted to wait until after the June 27 meeting, but the employees weren’t willing to do so, he noted.

“They decided to strike and we’re here to support them,” he said. “I wouldn’t call it a spontaneous strike because we’ve gone through the procedures of getting support from Joint Council 7 and IBT.”

Perez said that if the company decides to bring in strike-breakers they would have rights to work, too.

“They (the company) have a right to continue producing and if they bring in workers they can,” he said. “The problem is there is a shortage of labor now.”

While the truckers are most likely independent operators who would cross the picket lines, Perez said, those who work for the railroad are probably union members who won’t challenge the pickets.

“The other unions will definitely support us,” he said. “We’ve notified the Monterey Labor Council and we have their full support.”

Jimmy Lopez has been with the company 10 years in shipping and receiving.

“I’ve been here 10 years and my paycheck is getting smaller,” he said. “When insurance goes up, they tell us we have to pay for it. Every year, little by little, my take-home pay goes down. My hourly pay is a little over $20, but when I was making $16 an hour when I started here, I was taking home more money. A few years back when we didn’t have a contract, they took two of our holidays away and we didn’t have a thing to say about it.”

When the trucks finally began to move toward the loading docks on Friday morning, the strikers moved aside and watched as supervisors began transporting cans from the warehouses on forklifts. There was some cat-calling and jeering, but the strikers remained at the edge of the property on the sidewalk. When Lopez asked them to stay clear of the entrance Fregoso told him they were peaceful protestors and to “be cool.” 

Lopez commented that it would be interesting when the trucks reached Highway Patrol weighing stations because the supervisors had no idea how much to load. However, he pointed to one man on the dock and said he was with USDA and was probably instructing them how to load the trucks. He also said that when the regular workers are loading the trucks they're expected to do so every 20 minutes. As the supervisors were loading them, one truck had been sitting well over an hour.

A man identifying himself as Javier said he is one of the old timers, having worked for San Benito Foods for 37 years. He’s currently on disability and is in favor of the strike.

“The company says ‘give me more’ and nothing for the workers,” he said. “Every three years they cut something: holidays, wages, benefits. We didn’t pay anything for insurance, now we pay 20 percent. When you go to the doctor you pay co-pay and there’s lots of restrictions in the health plan.”

Lopez added that even though the company’s health plan is better than Obamacare, the workers are hurting because the company keeps making them pay for more of their benefits while adding more work responsibilities for less pay.

A woman named Isabel, who said she has worked for the company for 32 seasons, was walking the line said she was there because the company does not pay cost-of-living increases and seasonal workers have no benefits. She said she was prepared to strike as long as it takes to get what the workers want.

When BenitoLink called San Benito Foods for a comment on Friday, no one responded directly, but someone in the office said, “Tell him ‘no comment,’ and hang up." BenitoLink waited for the comment, but none was offered as of publication time.

Below is BenitoLink reporter John Chadwell's interview with San Benito Foods employee Jimmy Lopez, who explains the reasons for the strike:

John Chadwell

John Chadwell is a freelance photojournalist with additional experience as a copywriter, ghostwriter, scriptwriter, and novelist. He is a former U.S. Navy Combat Photojournalist and is an award-winning writer, having worked for magazine, newspapers, radio and television. He has a BA in Journalism and Mass Communications from Chapman University and graduate studies at USC Cinema School. John worked as a scriptwriting consultant, and his own script, "God's Club," was produced and released in 2016. He has also written eight novels, ranging from science fiction to true crime, which are sold on Amazon. To contact John Chadwell, send an email to: [email protected]