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Bittersweet Victory at Diamond Walnut
June 16, 2005

Resolution for Workers Reached After 14-Year Strike, No Thanks to Labor Law

In 1991, workers employed at the world's largest walnut-processing plant made the tough decision to strike.  They never imagined it would take fourteen years to end.  These workers don't have the government to thank for the resolution.  The government didn't force the employer—Diamond Walnut—back to the bargaining table, nor did the law offer any incentive to stop the dispute.  Our weak labor law system only helped extend the strike and prolong the hardships faced by workers before the employer turned a new leaf this year.

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No reward for loyalty

Since 1956, hundreds of men and women have arrived daily at the Diamond plant to process, package and ship nuts grown in orchards throughout California.  Many workers spent their entire lives working at the Stockton, CA, plant.  Cynthia Zavala, now retired, worked there for 26 years: "We grew up in that plant.  It was our second home."

When the company started to have financial trouble in the 1980s and appealed to the workers for help, a sense of loyalty compelled them to assist.  The workers and their union, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters, approved of cuts of over 30 percent to their wages and benefits in order to keep the company afloat.

Four years later, the company was back on track, listed in the FORTUNE 500 and grossing profits of over $171 million.  But when the union contract came up for renegotiation in 1991, Diamond turned its back on its loyal workers by offering inadequate proposals.  Faced with a contract offer of only meager wage increases of 10 cents an hour, workers grew frustrated with negotiations and considered going on strike.  Diamond responded by hiring over 600 replacement workers.

Like many workers, Cynthia Zavala was shocked and severely hurt by Diamond's failure to adequately acknowledge the sacrifices workers made to help the company rebound.  To add insult to injury, Diamond required the workers to train the replacements waiting to take their jobs.

"The managers said if we stuck by them, they would stick by us."1
—Cynthia Zavala (right), with Julie Patrico 

The long, hard fight

In September 1991, with no other recourse, the workers voted to strike.  Without effective labor law to help them force Diamond to negotiate fairly, the striking workers and their union worked to draw public attention to their plight, beginning with a call for an international boycott of Diamond Walnut products. 

The workers quickly became activists, participating in rallies and non-violent demonstrations.  Some traveled to Europe and throughout the United States to plead their case to Diamond's customers.  Several workers embarked on a hunger strike to put pressure on the company to change its ways. 

In response, the Stockton-area community shored up their support by donating food and funds to the strikers.  Some Stockton city council members even joined the hunger strike.

While federal labor law enabled Diamond to sustain itself with permanent replacement workers, the strike's unexpected duration took a severe economic and emotional toll on workers and their families.  Although Cynthia Zavala and her husband were able to keep their house thanks to the union's strike fund, they relied on donated food during the tough times.  She tearfully recounts, "To this day, my husband and I don't know how we survived." 

Victory at last, in spite of the law

A break in the impasse began when Diamond's replacement workers realized that a union would help them improve their working conditions.  In 2004, Diamond workers - including the strikers and their replacements - voted to retain union representation.  Shortly afterwards, the company finally sought a resolution and negotiated a fair contact with the union.  In March 2005, 750 workers ratified a new five-year contract that secured wage increases, stabilized healthcare costs, and offered a 401(k) plan, training programs, and English classes.  Additionally, the strikers retained benefits and seniority when they returned to the plant, all without causing the replacement workers to lose their jobs. 

Justice prevailed for the replacement workers seeking union representation.  The same cannot be said for the striking workers who made significant sacrifices for their employer and for the struggle.  Fewer than 30 of the original 600 striking workers returned to the plant to enjoy the benefits of the new contract.  After 14 years of struggle, most of the original Diamond workers were forced to find other employment, or were simply too old to go back to work.

Lucio Reyes, a former Diamond employee who now works for the Teamsters, helped broker the historic agreement.  He believes the hard-won victory was more for posterity: "Everyone who fought so hard, they knew that this was not for them…We realized that we wanted jobs where our kids and grandchildren could have dignity and respect…and work in a place they can be proud of.  It's a great feeling to know that finally it came to closure."

If it wasn't for the tenacity of the Teamsters union and the striking workers, there still could be no resolution in sight.  The U.S. labor law system left the striking workers out in the cold for 14 years, despite several National Labor Relations Board rulings against their employer.  No one should have to suffer through such a system to ensure their basic rights are protected at work.  But as long as U.S. labor law effectively deprives workers of their right to strike, employers can continue to call the shots when it comes to labor disputes. 



U.S. Labor Law Denies Workers a Real Right to Strike 

Workers don't really have the right to strike
if they can be permanently replaced. 

Under U.S. labor law, workers are entitled to strike in order to improve working conditions.  However, the law allows employers to permanently replace workers who participate in an economic strike and for replacement workers to vote out the union formed by those on strike.2  A 2000 study by Human Rights Watch concluded this doctrine "runs counter to international standards recognizing the right to strike as an essential element of freedom of association."3

State lawmakers sympathetic to workers' rights are trying to address this contradiction in U.S. labor law.  In its last legislative session, the Wisconsin legislature considered a bill that would make it more difficult for employers to replace striking workers.  The State of Illinois recently enacted a law granting unemployment benefits to striking workers.

Sources

1. Quoted in Russell Mokhiber, "The Ten Worst Companies of 1993," Multinational Monitor, December 1993. 
2. NLRB v. Mackay Radio & Telegraph Co., 304 US 333 (1938). 
3. Lance Compa, Unfair Advantage: Workers' Freedom of Association in the United States Under International Human Rights Standards (New York: Human Rights Watch, 2000) 38.