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Teamsters, ConAgra Reach Deal to End 2-Year Strike

Labor: Pact is expected to be approved, resolving a dispute that split a small town near Salinas.

August 18, 2001|NANCY CLEELAND | TIMES STAFF WRITER

A two-year strike that divided a California farm town and forced hundreds of low-wage workers to scramble for jobs elsewhere is ending under a deal announced this week by the Teamsters union and food giant ConAgra.

The strike, at an onion and garlic dehydration plant in King City, near Salinas, was noteworthy for the determination of the employees. About 750 held the strike, out of a work force of 800. Many were related by blood or marriage, and picket lines often included family members of two or three generations.

Strikers organized a boycott that led schools, county hospitals and jails throughout the state to change their source of dried beans, mashed potatoes and other products from family-owned Basic American Foods, parent company of plant operator Basic Vegetable Products.

Teamsters officials estimated the strike and boycott cost the company at least $20 million.

In November, Basic sold the 50-year-old factory to ConAgra, which spent months sorting through complaints and trying to reach a settlement. Negotiators agreed Thursday to a five-year contract, which includes an immediate 3% wage increase and modest increases for the following two years. Health and pension benefits continue unchanged.

"After they got over the initial shock, people cried, laughed, hugged each other. Everyone's on cloud nine," said Steve Garcia, who represented the workers for Teamsters Local 890.

Before taking the union job, Garcia worked at the plant for 16 years, and both his parents continued to work there until the strike. Two months into the strike, his father suffered a stroke, which left him paralyzed on one side.

Garcia said it was stress-related, his father just one of many casualties of the strike.

"We had a lot of people lose their houses and cars," Garcia said. "It was a long, hard struggle." The small community offered few jobs other than fieldwork. Some workers commuted to jobs as far away as San Jose, a two-hour drive. Others left the state for fisheries in Alaska, hotels in Las Vegas or meatpacking plants in Iowa, he said.

King City also was sharply divided because Basic was a large employer that donated generously to civic causes. When the strike began, a Basic spokesman said the company could not make a profit if it offered a better contract.

The initial offer cut wages, particularly for new hires, added a medical co-payment and eliminated the pension plan. ConAgra operates similar plants in the region, and workers wanted to match wages at those factories.

ConAgra spokeswoman Jessica Berg said the company intended to work with the union since it bought the plant. Negotiations were complicated because hundreds of replacement workers had been hired by Basic through the course of the strike.

"We're very happy," Berg said. "It looks like we're on the road to resolving this situation. We think it's good for us, good for the workers and good for the community."

Under the contract, strikers will be offered jobs based on seniority. The total work force has been reduced from about 800 before the strike to about 550. Plant workers now earn a minimum of $12.72 an hour.

It is unlikely that replacement workers will retain their jobs, a union spokesman said. The change will be phased in, with groups of 50 workers returning.

Union members will vote on the contract offer Thursday, but several members and union representatives said there is no doubt they will approve it. The first group of returning strikers is set to march back to the plant Labor Day, Sept. 3, with Teamsters President James Hoffa.

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