Tuesday - Jul 23, 2019

Roots of social justice organizing in Silicon Valley

by David Bacon

The South Bay has its history of violence, structural racism and worker exploitation. But it also has a long history of resistance-of courageous organizers who built movements that have had an impact far beyond the Santa Clara Valley.

The Santa Clara Valley’s social movement history began with the indigenous resistance to colonization, followed by the annexation of California after the war of 1848.The original indigenous Ohlone people living at the south end of the San Francisco Bay were torn from their communities, and then enslaved in the missions built by the Spanish colonizers. But those communities fought the Spaniards and the land grant settlers.

Roxanne Dunbar Ortiz writes that in the civil rights era of the 1960s, California indigenous people researched this resistance.
“They found that no mission escaped uprisings from within or attacks from outside by communities of the imprisoned along with escapees,” Dunbar Ortiz writes. “Indigenous guerrilla forces of up to two thousand formed. Without this resistance, there would be no descendants of the California Native peoples of the area colonized by the Spanish.”

After Mexico freed itself from Spain in 1820 (throwing out the Franciscan friars who operated the missions), Valley residents rose in opposition to conquest by the United States in 1848.

Tiburcio Vásquez, who led a rebellion against the U.S. in the years after the war, was born in Monterey and fought with Joaquin Murrieta from the Santa Clara to the San Joaquin Valleys. After Vásquez was captured, he was tried in the Santa Clara County Courthouse, and hanged in St. James Park.

The growth of the South Bay’s population really began with the development of huge orchards of plums, nuts and other fruit in the late 1800s, and then the canning industry that allowed the shipment of fruit to the rest of the country. By 1930 the Santa Clara Valley was the fruit processing capital of the world, owing to the labor of thousands of immigrant workers.  It was the state’s largest employer of women. Thirty-eight canneries included huge corporations like Libby’s, Hunt’s and Calpak, employing up to 30,000 people.

Researcher Glenna Matthews says, “The fruit industry constituted a classic segmented labor market, with women’s work being systematically paid less then men’s.”  This pattern was duplicated years later in the other huge industry for which the valley became famous-electronics. The pollution of the South Bay’s water also has a long history prior to the emergence of the electronics industry in the 1970s. By 1930 ranchers and canneries were pumping so much water from wells that salt water from the bay had leaked into the aquifers. Even earlier, the disposal of organic waste from canneries had caused serious pollution of the bay itself.

Worker-to-worker organizing wins the canneries

To oppose the canneries, the Valley’s labor movement was launched in the 1880s with material support from the San Francisco Federated Trades Council. The Wobblies -the radical anarchist Industrial Workers of the World – organized the first unions for cannery workers, including an early one called “Toilers of the World.” It included both men and women, and people of color as well as white workers.
Then, in August 1931 every cannery from the border of San Mateo County to south San Jose went on strike, organized by a Communist union, the Cannery and Agricultural Workers Industrial Union. Its main organizer was Elizabeth Nicholas, a Serbian immigrant and Communist, who won the support of the local labor council in 1929. Another strike organizer was Dorothy Healey, at the time 16 years old.

“We could not rent a single hall in San Jose,” she later recalled. “There was nothing which was legal, where people could gather together. The police brutality was of a far greater level than anything that the people have seen in later years. So we would hold these street meetings – I mean park meetings, strike meetings – at St. James Park, and the police would break them up.”
The main strategy used through the 1930s in the canneries was “workers organizing workers.” Despite obstacles, by the end of the 1930s the San Jose canneries were all unionized, and remained so until they closed six decades later.

In the red scares of the late 1940s and 1950s, however, UCAPAWA was expelled from the CIO for its radical politics and destroyed. Its union contracts in the canneries were taken over by the Teamsters Union, with the support of the companies who wanted to be rid of leftwing unions. Also expelled from the CIO were the International Longshore and Warehouse Union, which organized food processing workers in dried fruit plants in the Santa Clara Valley, and the United Electrical Workers (an expulsion that would later have a profound impact on the future of unions in the Valley’s electronics industry.)

Chicano labor start work in San Jose

After World War II, while the anti-communist witch-hunts were taking place, radical Chicano labor and community leaders began work in San Jose. Bert Corona, the father of the modern immigrant rights movement, moved there after being blacklisted by the Coast Guard on the Los Angeles docks. He and Lucio Bernabe, a cannery organizer, encouraged strikes among bracero contract farm workers brought from Mexico to work in U.S. fields as semi-slave labor. The pair organized food caravans when braceros stopped work, and tried to prevent their deportation.

Corona organized the local chapter of the Asociación Nacional Mexicana Americana (ANMA), a radical community organization fighting discrimination. He also belonged to the Community Service Organization, where Cesar Chavez got his original organizers’ training. Chavez’ family lived in San Jose for several years on 21st Street near the Sal Si Puedes barrio, and he and Corona both worked there with the CSO. But Corona also disagreed with “one of its [CSO’s] stated reasons for organizing … to keep the ‘reds’ from establishing a base in the communities.” Veteran San Jose activist Fred Hirsch says, “Fear that the CP might establish a base in communities was not unfounded. In fact, it had a base, and used it to strengthen community actions and organizing by workers in the canneries and fields.”

Lucio Bernabe fought off one of the most notorious political deportation cases of the era with the help of the leftwing American Committee for the Protection of the Foreign Born and local members of the CP. He eventually helped found the Cannery Workers Committee (CWC) in the 1970s and ‘80s, with another left-winger, Mike Johnston.

Ernesto Galarza also lived in San Jose in the postwar era. Galarza worked with Mexican and Filipino farm workers starting in the late 1940s, organizing the National Farm Labor Union and striking growers in the San Joaquin Valley. That union’s successor, the Agricultural Workers Organizing Committee, began the great grape strike in 1965 under the leadership of Larry Itliong, and later merged with the National Farm Worker Association to form the United Farm Workers (UFW). Galarza wrote several influential books about farm labor and Chicanos, particularly Merchants of Labor, which exposed the abuses of the bracero program.