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Archive for Thursday, August 31, 2000

Walnut pickers’ strike begins 10th year

Workers walked out on Labor Day 1991

August 31, 2000

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— When more than 600 workers at the world's largest walnut processing plant walked off the job in a fit of Labor Day euphoria in 1991, they were certain they were days from victory.

After all, Diamond Walnut Growers Inc. produces half the walnuts grown commercially in the United States and the fall harvest was about to begin: Growers needed 200 million pounds of walnuts processed and packaged for shipment around the world.

Since then, though, nine walnut harvests have come and gone, a tenth is about to begin, and Teamsters Local 601 is still on strike -- even as profits at Diamond Walnut soar.

"It hasn't been easy. We had to look for different ways to keep people motivated," said Lucio Reyes, 49, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Local 601. "We've had many people pass away since the strike started. Some people are sick and they'll never work again."

Union members see new reason for hope, thanks to a recent National Labor Relations Board ruling that a judge should hold hearings this fall into whether Diamond engaged in unfair labor practices by refusing to rehire striking workers for equivalent or non-seasonal work.

If the judge rules in the strikers' favor, they predict it will bring millions of dollars in penalties and back pay. Most of the strikers have since found jobs elsewhere.

At issue, the union says, is winning fair compensation for their help restoring the financial health of Diamond, a grower-owned cooperative with processing plants in California, Illinois and Alabama.

Union members took a 30 percent pay cut in 1985, when times were tough. When the 1991 contract came up, Diamond offered a dime-an-hour raise coupled with a bonus program.

Union officials were so offended they didn't even put the offer to a vote, and ordered the walkout. The cooperative responded by replacing the striking workers.

"This happened at the most crucial time of the harvest," Diamond spokeswoman Sandra McBride said. "To save the crop, Diamond was forced to hire replacement workers."

Local 601 decided to take its case to consumers.

During the 1992 holiday season, strikers targeted productions of "The Nutcracker" with a trumpeter dressed as the toy nutcracker serenading crowds with Christmas songs.

Strikers handed out leaflets in California and as far away as New York, Boston, Atlanta and Minneapolis urging theatergoers to "Boycott Diamond Walnuts, Not the Ballet."

But the strike has long since faded from the newspapers and the consciousness of many residents. Union members say they have received more support across the nation than in their hometown.

"It's a farming community, so they believe in the farmers and the cooperative. They stuck together pretty good, too," said Linda Geiszler, 50, who began working at the plant at age 18.

Diamond spokeswoman McBride said there has been no finding of wrongdoing against the cooperative, let alone damages. She accuses the union of using legal challenges to block replacement plant employees from ending their Teamster representation.

International Brotherhood of Teamsters General President James P. Hoffa described the strike as one of the union's "epic battles" during a rally last week outside the 75-acre plant.

"Someday they will look back here, at the land of John Steinbeck and 'The Grapes of Wrath,' and say ... 'The workers at Stockton's Diamond plant, they are the ones who stood up,"' he said.

Diamond has seen sales rise 70 percent since the strike began Sept. 4, 1991, from $171 million to $244 million. McBride said the strikers would have been better off taking the company's offer.

Still, one of the workers hardest hit by the strike, Cruz Zavala, 68, says he has no regrets. The walkout, he said, was about a lot more than just him.

Zavala and his wife, Cynthia, were among 21 families in which both breadwinners worked at the plant. Now retired, the strike cost him up to $300 a month in pension benefits.

"There were other people I believed in, other people I supported," he said. "It would have been wrong, it would have been an injustice, if I would have just worried about ourselves."

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