OXNARD — For a good long stretch, Alfonso Suarez lived a farm worker's dream.
Nearly two decades ago, the 44-year-old Mexican immigrant stepped out of the fields and into a job at an Oxnard cannery that has supplied steady work and generous paychecks to generations of local residents.
Back then, he remembers thinking that he had punched his ticket to lifetime employment. His job, filling bottles with A-1 Steak Sauce, gave him everything he wanted: health benefits, three weeks' vacation and a pension plan. And he had no doubt that he would be around long enough to collect the money he was banking for retirement.
But in recent months, Suarez's dream has come crumbling down around him. And last Sunday, at the stroke of midnight, it came to an end.
That's when he and about 100 other full-time employees at Nabisco Foods stepped off the production line at the 3rd Street factory for the final time, turned out by the company's decision to sell its local plant and shift key operations to the East Coast.
"I feel like I have left a part of my life behind, like a part of me has died," said Suarez, pushing one last time through a creaky old turnstile that separates the Oxnard cannery from a cold, new reality.
"This job was the lifeblood of my family, and it's hard to believe that it is gone," said the father of four, who may be forced to return to the fields if no better job comes along. "This leaves a big hole in my life. Now I wake up and ask, 'What am I going to do today? Where am I going to go?' "
He is not alone. In addition to the 100 full-time employees who have been cut loose, 550 other seasonal workers were officially notified last week that they no longer had jobs at the plant, which canned Ortega products and bottled the world's supply of A-1 Steak Sauce and Grey Poupon mustard.
In the months leading up to the closure, workers were upended by a dizzying chain of events that has left them numb and searching for answers.
In January 1995, dozens of female employees at the Oxnard factory filed sex discrimination charges against Nabisco, contending that they were consistently denied bathroom breaks and resorted to wearing diapers on the job. That was followed by a class-action sex discrimination lawsuit against the New Jersey-based food maker.
Nabisco officials--who have long denied those charges--announced last September that they had sold the Oxnard plant and the company's Ortega line to a division of Nestle USA Inc. While Nabisco was shifting the rest of its operation back east, Nestle decided to shift production of Ortega products to other plants and sell the Oxnard factory, a move that put the seasonal employees out of work and put an end to the operation for good.
Many workers believe that the labor dispute triggered the plant closure, but Nabisco officials say they simply are pursuing a business deal that will save the company $5 million a year.
Whatever the reason, the closure has silenced, at least for now, the production lines of the Oxnard operation for the first time in at least 50 years.
Moreover, many workers in this largely Latino labor force have been battered by recent events, left to find their way on unfamiliar ground like survivors of a shipwreck who wash up on some distant shore and have no idea where they are or how they got there.
"The future appears very dark for us," Suarez put it plainly. "I can't find the words to say how bad I feel."
For longtime workers at the Oxnard cannery, these jobs were the foundation upon which they had built their lives. Paychecks from the 3rd Street factory helped buy new homes and new cars, financed family vacations and helped parents put kids through college.
This was never white-collar work. Much of it was dirty, sweaty factory toil. But the work was regular and it paid well, an average of $12 an hour for full-time employees.
And that rock steady rhythm stoked the notion that the American dream--even as it was being redefined elsewhere by corporate shutdowns and layoffs--was still accessible, at least to some degree, to this collection of blue-collar factory hands.
"Those were good jobs, everyone wanted to get into Nabisco," said Rusty Montano, 40, a forklift operator who put in nearly 20 years at the cannery. "You felt you had security, you felt like it was never going to end. I don't think anyone had plans of looking for work anyplace else. We all thought we would retire from there."
The original food processing operation began half a century ago when the Ortega Chile Co.--born in an adobe home on the banks of the Ventura River--was incorporated into the Coastal Valley Canning Co. Ownership changed hands several times, with Nabisco buying the operation in 1988.
But no matter which corporate flag was flying out front, local Latinos have always known the plant as la chileria--the chili factory.