Collective Journey

Members of SEIU Local 521, representing some 3,200 Monterey County employees, have been threatening to strike since their three-year contract expired on June 30.

The history of the American labor movement and the history of Monterey County are forever intertwined.

The 1934 Salinas lettuce strike is among the earliest milestones in that long relationship. The landmark action, led by the Filpino Labor Union, resulted in the first time an ethnic organization officially negotiated with agricultural companies.

The success of that strike provided inspiration for the Salad Bowl strike in the summer of 1970. Thousands of Salinas Valley farmworkers, mostly Mexicans and Mexican-Americans, walked out on their lettuce jobs in what became the largest farmworker strike in U.S. history.

Five decades after the Salad Bowl Strike, the UFW has shifted focus on supporting the workers of the Salinas Valley in their communities as much as in the fields. This is exemplified in the UFW’s Central Coast Farmworkers Center, which opened May 2018 on East Gabilan Street. It’s a space where workers can file complaints, but also where anyone can come for workshops on things like renewing their DACA status (Deferred Action for Childhood Arrivals) for the school year or applying for citizenship.

For Eva Garcia, UFW Salinas office manager, the role of the union transcends the campaigns for workers’ rights.

“It’s not just a union,” Garcia says. “We empower the community with a si se puede attitude.”

From Filipino farmworkers in the 1930s to Salinas Valley Memorial Healthcare System workers last year, the strike and the threat of a strike is a tool for workers to use their labor as leverage. But developments in technology pose new challenges.

UNITE HERE Local 483 has experienced consistent years of growth as the leading union organizing the area’s hospitality workers who run hotels, restaurants and golf courses.

Unlike other highly unionized workforces, like automobile and garment workers, UNITE HERE Local 483 doesn’t worry so much about whether the jobs of their roughly 1,300 members will be outsourced, but whether those jobs will be replaced by robots. Hector Azpilcueta, treasurer of Local 483, sees automation as a key obstacle unions will face in the future.

“Jobs like bartenders at casinos and receptionists at front desks are beginning to be done by computers at some hotels,” Aziplcueta says. “What the union must do is ensure these workers affected by this change will be trained for new jobs or transferred where they can use their skills.”

While the rise of automation and the advent of tools like Airbnb that allow visitors to avoid hotels altogether, UNITE HERE Local 483 must evolve with the times. Regardless if the struggle is for higher wages or ensuring employees aren’t rapidly replaced, Azpilcueta feels there will always be something for the union to fight for.

“Because our successes set the standard.”

“As the cost of living continues to rise we must continue standing up for the well-being of workers,” Azpilcueta says. “Because our successes set the standard.”

Meanwhile, some 3,200 Monterey County employees who are members of SEIU Local 521 are on the brink of going on strike. They do everything from determining benefit eligibility at Social Services centers to counseling mentally ill clients in crisis to public works projects.

SEIU members have been locked in negotiations with the county’s bargaining team all summer, as their three-year contract was about to expire on June 30, they marched in their first salvo at public support. About 250 people wearing purple gathered with horns and chants of “I believe that we will win,” and wore pins with an image of a viper and the text, “If provoked will strike.”

Their contract included a no-strike clause; since that contract expired, there’s no such clause in effect, and the union voted on Aug. 24 to authorize a strike.

The county has been asking for SEIU members to start contributing to their health insurance costs (the county currently pays 100 percent), something the union has been unwilling to budge on.

“This is so important that we will strike,” says Laurel Crisan, a Social Services secretary and member of SEIU’s negotiating team. “We want to keep our health care and get a decent cost-of-living raise. It’s not a lot to ask for.”

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