Watsonville on Strike
Reflexivity and conflict

by Geoffrey Dunn

from Jump Cut, no. 35, April 1990, pp. 117-120
copyright Jump Cut: A Review of Contemporary Media, 1990, 2006

Jon Silver's powerful new documentary, WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE opens with a classic mise-en-scene of cinematic reflexivity. The setting is a Teamsters union hail, where dozens of mostly Mexican cannery workers are standing on one side of the room confronting local union president Fred Heim. Straight out of central casting as the prototypical bad guy, the gruff-and-burly Heim turns to the camera and demands that the film crew leave the premises. Director (and cinematographer) Silver, speaking in Spanish, asks the cannery workers from behind the camera if he can stay. "Si, si!" they shout in unison.

Heim, obviously unable to understand the language of the workers he represents, thrusts his arm out at the crowd and declares in English that they aren't even members of the Union. Silver translates Heim's remarks. The workers are outraged. "Our union dues pay your salary," one of them retorts in Spanish. Red-faced and losing control, Heim steps threateningly towards the camera, and with his finger thrust at the lens, shouts out at Silver, "If you put me on TV, I'll sue ya." Cut and take.

The scene not only establishes many of the larger themes that are later addressed in the film (i.e., Mexican-born workers being represented by white union officials unable to communicate with their own rank-and-file; the workers refusing to be denied their rights), but it also establishes the tone and temper of the film, its conscious reflexivity[1][open notes in new window] and its political point of view. The film is obviously about conflict — economic, cultural, political, even moral — and the filmmaker has clearly chosen sides; he is, in fact, an actor in the struggle, an unabashed partisan.[2] There is no pretense of objectivity; this is not the nightly news.

For those unfamiliar with the events covered in the film, in September of 1985, over 1,500 Teamster-organized cannery workers walked out on the two largest frozen food companies in the United States — Watsonville Canning and Richard A. Shaw Frozen Foods. The strike became a national cause celebre for U.S. leftists and served as a bitter reflection of corporate agribusiness run amok.

Located at the head of the agriculturally-rich Salinas Valley in Central California, the city of Watsonville has a population of roughly 30,000 and is promoted by the local Chamber of Commerce as "The Frozen Food Capital of the World." In fact, over half of the nation's frozen fruits and vegetables are processed in this relatively small coastal burg by a total workforce of 5,000, all of whom work in less than a dozen plants.

WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE traces the less-than-noble history of union organizing in California canneries, one that led in the 1940s and 50s to a series of sweetheart contracts with the notoriously conservative International Brotherhood of Teamsters, who were viewed by cannery owners as preferable to the more radical and militant CIO unions then attempting to secure contracts. The result was a pro-business, rubber-stamp Teamster leadership whose ideology and interests mirrored those of the cannery owners and the rest of the white, bourgeios power structure in Watsonvile. For decades, in fact, Watsonville Teamster Local No. 912 was run as a virtual private business, its officials amassing vast amounts of personal wealth at the expense of the workers they were charged to represent.

By the 1980's, however, the legitimacy of the union hierachy was beginning to crumble. Organizing under the banner of the nationally-based Teamsters for a Democratic Union (TDU), a small band of radical white Teamster members began to politicize the rank-and-file and draw attention to the various inadequacies of the local's leadership.

At the same time, overproduction and foreign competition were beginning to put strains on Watsonville's once thriving frozen food industry. In 1982, the largest of the city's frozen food processors, Watsonville Canning, cut wages by 40 cents per hour and established an even sweeter sweetheart contract with the Teamsters, one that provided them with a decided advantage against their other local competitors. Three years later, when Shaw Frozen Foods announced a similar cut-back, Watsonville Canning stunned the community by attempting to establish a base pay of nearly half of what it had been in real dollars just three years before. Workers were outraged. The strike was on — and it was to go on and on, for five months at Shaw's and for over a year-and-a-half at Watsonville Canning.[3]

One of the primary strengths of WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE is that it portrays the ideological and tactical complexities of the 19-month struggle; in other words, it doesn't gloss over the rank-and-file divisions in an often seen cinematic shorthand that casts the owners as the bad guys and the workers as proletarian saints. Not that the cannery owners aren't generally nasty; they are. But there are also plenty of black hats (and some grey ones, too) worn by those theoretically on the side of the workers, the aforementioned Fred Heim and his Teamster cronies among them.

From the beginning, WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE makes clear that the supposedly neutral U.S. political system was cast against the strikers. The Watsonville Police Department vigorously enforced a series of injunctions imposed by the courts, continually harassed strikers and their supporters, and, dressed as they were in assorted riot gear and military regalia, maintained the threat of violence throughout the strike. WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE contains numerous verité scenes of police confrontations with strikers and vividly depicts their clear-cut role in protecting bourgeois interests.

In the early days of the strike, TDU radicals provided leadership and direction to the walkout. In October they organized a mass rally called Solidarity Day, which drew over 2,000 strikers and strike supporters from throughout Northem California. The march was the largest ever in Watsonville's history — and it was directed against both the plant owners and the local Teamster officials, who had refused to endorse or participate in the demonstration.

As WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE delineates, however, the unity displayed in Solidarity Day was something of a facade. Although respected by many of the strikers, TDU's leaders were culturally isolated from the majority of Latina strikers and were never able to establish a mass base for their organization. TDU itself was also divided about which direction the strike should take. In the wake of both this internal ambivalence and lukewarm rank-and-file support for TDU, more moderate organizers were able to put together a middle-of-the-road organization, which included Teamster officials, a substantial number of women strikers and outside labor activists from Northern California. With a couple of notable exceptions, this so-called Strikers Committee was able to maintain leadership for the remainder of the struggle, while TDU was reduced to a secondary role, that of voicing dissent.

Cut to Sergio Lopez. In many was he comes across as the most frustrating, complex, and, at times, despicable figure in Silver's film. Bilingual and Mexican-born, Lopez served for years as a point man for the local Teamster hierarchy. Whenever there was trouble brewing in the canneries among the Mexican women, the Union honchos sent Lopez in to smooth things over. He often portrayed himself as a man caught in the middle ("My hands are tied," was a favorite expression), and he soon earned the nickname "mil mascaras" (a thousand masks). When the strike began, Lopez took up the official Teamster line and refused to endorse the Solidarity Day demonstration (though he himself showed up at it); with the emergence of a middle force, however, and the decline of TDU, the Strikers Committee had found a new leader.

Four months into the strike, the Teamsters held local elections for union officials. Grown weary of the struggle and unable to compromise with their politicized rank-and-file, the longtime white union officials called it a career, and with left opposition, fractured, Lopez swept unopposed into the leadership of the local.

One of the new leader's first actions was to secure a settlement at Shaw Frozen Foods, even though it meant accepting $1.21 per -hour pay cut. The Shaw settlement temporarily diffused the strike, leaving angry and disenchanted workers at Watsonville Canning alone in their walkout. They nonetheless dug in, re-organized and became even more solidified in their struggle; not a single striker ever crossed the picket line in the ensuing 14 months of the strike.

WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE is at its best in chronicling both the hardships of the strikers and the powerful spirit and tenacity they continually manifested to overcome their many difficulties. We see striking women organizing a food bank to supplement the strikers' meager $55-per-week strike benefits; we see them holding holiday celebrations — at Thanksgiving, Christmas and Halloween — and we also see the pain they experience knowing that their children are going hungry and watching them being evicted from their home for lack of rent. We feel their anger and bitterness as they watch scabs brought into work at the plant. "It hurts to see them going in there," declares one of the strikers, the pain on her facing saying much more than her words ever could.

There were times when the strike also began to take on a circus quality, as political celebrities began making obligatory pilgrimages to Watsonville and certified la huelga as a media event. United Farm Workers' president Cesar Chavez makes an impromptu appearance in the film cheering on the strikers, but then is embarrassingly ambivalent when asked if his union would support the striking cannery workers with a walkout of its own. At a later rally ten months into the strike, Jesse Jackson arrives in town and declares, "Watsonville is to economic justice what Selma, Alabama, was to political justice. These women are striking for all of us." Afterwards, Jackson gives one of the strikers an obligatory peck on the cheek. The shot, which Silver lets roll at wide-angle and without comment, is both touching and troubling at the same time; it's a fine line between support and opportunism.

In spite of the national attention the strike was receiving, a resolution was not at hand. The walkout continued on past a year, past a year-and-a-half. Finally, in the late winter of 1987, first a crack, then a huge crevice developed in the economic foundation of Watsonville Canning. Unable to produce with an unstable and, more importantly, an unskilled scab workforce, the processing plant was forced to survive on a line of credit ($18 million worth) provided at the start of the strike by Wells Fargo Bank. After a local boycott and added pressure from the national Teamsters Union, Wells Fargo finally called in the loan, and just like that Watsonville Canning went bankrupt. Originally, the company had set out to break the union; instead, the union workers had broken the company.

The strike was not over yet. A new consortium, headed by a millionaire spinach grower named David Gill, purchased the processing plant from Wells Fargo immediately after the bankruptcy. But as one of the picketing strikers declares in the film, "If they buy the company, they buy the strike, too." Not wanting to undertake a prolonged labor battle that would immediately cripple his fledgling operation, Gill negotiated a contract with Teamster leader Lopez. It appeared that the strike might finally be at an end.

Surprise. The proposed contract hammered out by Gill and Lopez not only called for a significant wage cut, but it also took away health care benefits for a rank-and-file composed of mostly working mothers. Although strongly endorsed by both the Teamsters union and the Strikers Committee, the contract was bitterly opposed by a majority of the striking workers and by TDU's Joe Fahey, recently elected to the low-level position of Business Agent in the Teamster local. When the union officially declared the strike over, the rank-and-file staged an emotionally-charged wildcat strike specifically over the issue of benefits. The wildcat included a moving, almost tragic peregrinacíon[4] that rekindled public support for the strikers and forced Gill to in­clude benefits in the contract offer. Another vote was taken: at long last, the strike was over.

While the Teamsters and Strikers Committee claimed victory, WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE is careful to point out that the final settlement was a mixed bag. After 19 months of lost wages, only half of the strikers actually went back to work and at a significant wage reduction at that.

Rather than close on a dramatically satisfying note of a worker's victory, Silver chose to interview strikers at a barbecue three weeks after the settlement. The film's final political assessment of the events it covers is thus more complicated — more theoretically sophisticated, if you will — than most left documentaries,[5] precisely because it allows for a complexity of views to be aired by its protagonists. One of the workers half-heartedly calls the strike a "victory," while another emphasizes with conviction that they had won back their benefits while their pay had been cut. Still another says bitterly, "We're being paid a scab's wage."

The film also points out that the strike's ultimate worth cannot be tallied merely in dollars and cents. "Before, we were afraid (to struggle)," says one striker. "Now we are not afraid. We know that we have the right to struggle ...I learned that I could speak out wherever I want."

The potential power of this politicization is a constant sub-theme of the film. At each crucial juncture in the walkout, the strikers are presented with a range of options: whenever they succumb to the moderate forces within the Teamsters and the Strikers Committee, compromises are made that cut away at both their power and their pocketbooks; when they assert themselves and strike out on their own, however, (as in the case of the final benefit demands) they eventually are reckoned with by the power structure. Just how much better off the strikers would now be had they taken the more radical road of the TDU activist cannot be honestly assessed from the film, but there is a telling, climatic moment in WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE that gives a chilling sense to the limits of the official Teamster vision, commitment and integrity. Following the final vote to accept the new contract, a television reporter asks Teamster leader Lopez what made the difference in the strike. After all the months of struggle and solidarity among his rank-and-file, Lopez responds without any sense of irony, "The new owner."

"But what about the workers?" the reporter asks back. "Didn't they make a difference, too?"

Appearing almost repelled by the thought, Lopez pulls away from the camera. "Of course, of course," he shrugs. Cut and wrap. The workers may have been radicalized by it all, but the Teamster leadership is still in the back pocket of the bosses.

It should be noted that WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE has been attacked by some of the moderate activists in the struggle who attached themselves to Lopez, but given filmmaker Silver's close allegiance to the views of TDU radicals, this should come as no surprise. Still another critic has argued that the film's "self-referential" context crossed over into "self-indulgence" on the part of the filmmaker, particularly in a sequence in which Silver is arrested and brought to trial for "failure to disperse." I think the problem with this segment of the film is not that it's self-referential, but that it's structurally and textually distracting. In other words, it takes the flow of the storyline away from the cannery workers, while failing to place the filmmaker's arrest in a context of analyzing the role of the mainstream media in covering the strike. In fact, WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE relies on the mainstream media (newspaper headlines and clips from the local TV news stations) to tell this particular part of the story. To show himself being arrested and tried was not to "display process," but to engage in autobiography. In the words of film theorist Jay Ruby, Silver is "being reflective without being reflexive."[6]

The one substantial textual flaw in WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE is one that is often present in radical documentaries and represents a tactical problem for all left filmmakers, Michael Moore's ROGER & ME notwithstanding. As Bill Nichols has pointed out, documentary works must display the "corpus,"[7] — that is, the "real social actors of whose historical engagement they speak." Silver's manifest partisanship prevented him from being granted an interview with one of the key players in the strike, Watsonville Canning owner Mort Console. While WATSON VILLE ON STRIKE does include a fairly bland and unrevealing interview with cannery owner Richard Shaw, Console is never even named in the film, nor do we see his image. By failing to include Console, the film misses out on Dziga Vertov's notion of cinematic dialectic[8] and, as a result, is forced to rely on less-compelling narrative. The inherent contradictions in the canning industry's relations of production are not nearly as dramatic and drawn out as they might have been.

The trade-off, of course, is that Silver's close relationship with the strikers allowed him to obtain the kind of footage that ultimately makes WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE as powerful as it is. Silver's great triumph is that he was there with his camera for virtually every major moment of the 19-month long struggle and that he provides an intimacy with the films protagonists that is rare in the documentary tradition. This in itself is no small achievement and sets a mighty high standard for future documentaries of its genre.


1. Jay Ruby notes that

"being reflexive means that the producer deliberately and intentionally reveals to his/her audience the underlying epistemological assumptions that caused him/her to formulate a set of questions in a particular way, to seek answers to those questions in a particular way, and finally to present those findings in a particular way." Jay Ruby, "The Image Mirrored: Reflexivity and the Documentary Film," New Challenges for the Documentary, ed. Alan Rosenthal (University of California Press: Berkeley, 1988), p. 65

2. Silver is a member of a leftist, community-based organization in Watsonville called the Migrant Media Education Project. The group played an active support role in the strike and was loosely affiliated with members of the Watsonville Teamsters for A Democratic Union (TDU). Silver, who is bilingual, also works as a video producer at the University of California at Santa Crux.

3. For a more thorough historical and theoretical analysis of the strike see Frank Bardacke, "Watsonville: A Mexican Community On Strike," The Year Left — 1988, ed. Mike Davis (Verso: New York, 1988), pp. 149-182. Bardacke was one of the founding members of Watsonville TDU.

4. A Mexican-Catholic religious ceremony in which one walks on one's knees a great distance to a church or altar.

5. See Chuck Kleinhans, "Forms, Politics, Makers, and Contexts: Basic Issues for a Theory of Radical Political Documentary," Show Us Life: Toward a History and Aesthetic of the Committed Documentary, ed. Thomas Waugh (Metuchen, NJ: Scarecrow Press, 1984), pp. 318-342.

6. Ruby, op cit., p.66

7. Bill Nichols, "History, Myth, and Narrative in Documentary," Film Quarterly (Fall 1987), p. 9.

8. See "The Vertov Papers," Film Comment 8 (Spring 1972), pp. 42-61.

Distributor — WATSONVILLE ON STRIKE, Migrant Media Productions, PO Box 2048, Freedom, CA 95019. 408-728-8949.