WATSONVILLE — Most of the people who package frozen broccoli and cauliflower here at Green Giant's western U.S. processing facility didn't graduate from high school. Yet they are receiving a sophisticated, firsthand education in contemporary economics. Every theme in the book-- restructuring, globalization, free trade, retraining --seems to have been etched upon their lives.
And it hurts.
On Friday, Green Giant will lay off 375 of its 550 Watsonville workers. The cuts are part of what a British conglomerate named Grand Metropolitan PLC, which owns Green Giant's corporate parent, Pillsbury Inc., describes as a plan to competitively reshape Pillsbury.
Many of the Green Giant jobs, which pay about $7.50 an hour plus health benefits, will go to the expansion of a Green Giant plant in an agricultural region of Mexico, where workers earn the Mexican minimum wage of about $4 a day.
It's a familiar story. In nearly 2,000 U.S.-owned plants in Mexico, most of them in overcrowded border towns, about 500,000 Mexicans now assemble furniture, electronics, toys and cars--work that a decade ago was mostly done in the United States. The U.S. workers who lost these kinds of manufacturing jobs were often forced into lower-paying service-sector work.
The exporting of jobs by American companies desperate to slash labor costs may increase once the Bush Administration completes its plan for a free-trade agreement with Mexico. The agreement would make it even cheaper for firms to move to Mexico by eventually eliminating the tariffs that are charged when Mexican-produced products are shipped back to American factories.
Against this background, there is considerable bitterness among Green Giant employees as the last day of work approaches in this small Central California town off California 1 just north of the famed Salinas Valley, even though workers have known since last May that their jobs would be gone.
"There's something terribly wrong when an English company comes and acquires an American company and shortly after that they announce they're going to displace American workers by relocating production to another country and enjoy the riches of America," said Sergio Lopez, secretary-treasurer of Teamsters Union Local 912, which represents the employees.
One final lesson in the workers' education remains to be determined: In a recession, can the lives of low-skilled, unemployed people be salvaged by a comprehensive retraining program?
Often, employers walk away from this question, leaving the workers' future to government employment specialists. Here, however, Pillsbury--acknowledging the human impact of what it calls a "difficult business decision"--is contributing several hundred thousand dollars and hiring a Maryland-based retraining consultant. These efforts will be combined with $1.3 million in federal funds to produce what one state employment expert describes as a "national showcase project" to retrain and place 80% of the laid-off workers in other types of employment.
The odds of success, however, are not good.
Watsonville's economy was already strapped by the devastating Northern California earthquake of 1989, which has left many businesses still boarded up. Then came the national economic contraction of 1990. And then, last month, came a crop-killing freeze that caused thousands of layoffs in harvesting and processing in many of California's agricultural areas.
Making matters worse, the average Green Giant worker is a weak candidate in today's job market: a 45-year-old Latina immigrant, lacking a high school diploma, often illiterate in English or Spanish.
Only by clinging to Green Giant, which pays relatively high wages and has an exceptionally stable work force, have many of these people been able to walk the economic tightrope into lower-middle-class life.
Take Lauro and Yolanda Navarro.
The Navarros, like most Green Giant workers, came from the country to which their jobs are now headed. Each of their families immigrated to Watsonville from Mexico in the early 1970s. Lauro, 36, and Yolanda, 34, arrived as teen-agers and immediately began working rather than attending high school. They met in an English-as-a-second-language course. Yolanda had been at Green Giant since age 14, when she'd lied about her age.
They married in 1974. After the first of their five children was born, Lauro joined his wife at Green Giant. Four years ago they were finally able to buy a one-bedroom, $54,000 house with a $500-a-month mortgage payment.
The thought of disruption, of losing any of this, terrifies them.
The Navarros say they are glad to have the luxury of a retraining program. Lauro thinks he'll train to go into construction. Yolanda wants to study to become a beautician. But they know that to survive they may have to leave Watsonville or take lower-paying jobs, or both.