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Photograph by Deborah Green, 'Preserve the Rights of Those Who Preserve our Food,' Labor Poster
Sign Language : Artifacts from Watsonville's 1985 cannery strike go on display this week.

No, You Can't

A new art exhibit explores how Watsonville's Latina workers threw the brakes on exploitation in the mid-1980s and forever changed the city

By Steve Hahn

Carmina Eliason was a cultural anthropology student at CSU Monterey Bay in 2005 when her life changed. She was taking notes on a film titled Watsonville on Strike, which told the story of the 18-month cannery workers action that upended the South County town from 1985 to 1987, when she realized that this event was pivotal to the history of Watsonville but was seldom mentioned outside the classroom. Eliason decided to change all that by organizing an accessible but powerful art exhibit that opens this week at the Pajaro Valley Gallery.

"I remember being really amazed that these women had done this," she says. "There were a lot of people I spoke with afterward who were either in Santa Cruz at the time or who moved to Watsonville shortly after the strike who kind of knew about it, but didn't have a full understanding of the strike."

The Watsonville cannery strike is both a universal story of the harsh effects of globalization and a very personal story of community solidarity in the face of debilitating poverty. The problems began in the early '80s, when Watsonville Canning and Shaw Frozen Foods both began cutting wages and health benefits in response to low-cost competition from south of the border. In 1985, the mostly female workers at both canneries walked out. The Shaw strike lasted only five months, but at Watsonville Canning it dragged on for more than a year and a half. The strike eventually bankrupted the company and was only resolved when a new owner, spinach grower David Gill, agreed to ease up on the pay cuts and restore some health benefits. In both cases, Eliason says, the workers took a hit--but they gained something else that was much more important.

"It wasn't a great resolution, but what they got out of it was a voice," says Eliason. "This previously marginalized group of Latina women was able to take on that voice, and they still have that today."

The Aug. 1 commemoration will feature a mural workshop, music, poetry and speeches from those involved in the strike and those who documented it. The art exhibit, on display until Sept. 21, will center on posters constructed during the strike and other artwork from similar labor actions taking place around the same time. Some of the artists whose work will be displayed include Jose Santana, Lucien Kubo, Laura Ortiz Spiegel, Juan Fuentes and Bob Fitch.

The 18-month strike didn't just inspire bold poster art, it also created a political force that significantly changed Watsonville's electoral process. One of the former strikers, Cruz Gomez, filed suit against the city shortly after the strike on the grounds that "at-large" voting for City Council members was illegal under the Voting Rights Act. ("At-large" means the entire city votes for each councilmember.) Gomez's successful lawsuit instead broke the city into voting districts. Each councilmember would now be elected from one of those districts, increasing the representation of Latinos on what was previously an all-white City Council, despite an almost one-to-one ratio of white to Latino in the city's demographics. The district-based elections persist to this day.

This lasting effect of the strike is one of the reasons Eliason is cautious about organizing her commemoration. She is fully aware that the strike is still a contentious topic and could set off fresh debate.

"Some people aren't going to be happy with this exhibit," she says, "and won't want to commemorate this struggle."

REMEMBERING THE STRUGGLE: UNDERSTANDING THE WATSONVILLE CANNERY STRIKE THROUGH ART Exhibit opens Friday, Aug. 1, with a 2pm youth mural workshop downtown and a march to the Pajaro Valley Gallery, 37 Sudden St., Watsonville. Exhibit continues through Sept. 21. For a listing of other events visit Free.

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