August 14, 1998

The Pillar Remembered: The Story of the Cannery Workers

Albacore comming off the conveyor belt headed to the cannery. (Photo Courtesy of the San Diego Unified Port District)

By Robert Quintana

The tuna canneries were ahead of their time. Norma Martinez, a cannery `veteran' of 25 years, remembers exercising every morning at the beginning of each workday at one of the plants. This was long before it became en vogue for corporate America to install athletic gear on rooftops.

For others the Statue of Liberty might have been hidden amidst the heavy, pungent odor of fish. John and Marty Cota recall a place where persons of Mexican, Italian, Japanese and Anglo descent all worked together like a championship baseball team. Diversity was a reality not a goal. And when someone was down, hurt, or was struck with some kind of tragedy, the others would pitch in any way they could. The `familia' was there.

When it came down to celebrating birthdays, weddings and other special occasions—fuh-get about it—a multicultural feast ensued. "I remember when it came down to having parties, people from each different ethnic group would bring their particular type of food and everyone would share," said Marty Cota. "It was incredible."

John and Marty Cota. John worked 25 years at the cannery while Marty spent 10 years in the tuna industry.

The Cota's were happy when they worked there, so much so that their old boss, Don Arthur, was a kind of hero figure for them. "Don worked his way up to supervisor from the bottom as a fish dumper and he sure knew what he was doing," said John, with respect and admiration. "When the fish came in, Don could tell you exactly when we were going to be finished." Marty had kind words to say too. "He (Don Arthur) had a unique philosophy in that he wanted to hire other members of your family and he looked at that as a real positive thing."

Of course there was still work to do. Hundreds of tons of tuna needed to be dumped onto the conveyor belts, cooked, cleaned, checked, packed, and distributed. Marty worked most of her 10 years as a checker and John, a 25 year veteran, worked in the delivery end. There was a time though, when the workday could begin at night according to Mr. Cota. "It didn't matter when that boat came in. It could be nine in the morning or at midnight, when the fish came in we had to start working, and we didn't stop until we were finished. It was a different life but that's the way it was."

The pay wasn't too bad either according to everyone.

Take 1955 as an example. In November of that year, the Cannery and Fishermen's Union struck a deal with their employers at the Westgate cannery. 600 employees fought for and received a 5 cent wage increase. It was also agreed upon that men could make a maximum of $1.85 an hour and women could earn a maximum of $1.65 an hour. That was good money back then.

Perusing through the San Diego Union archives, rent for a high end two bedroom home in 1955 cost about $80 a month. A women who made the maximum of $1.65 an hour could feasibly afford this. She would earn approximately $264 dollars a month. Whereas in 1998, average rent for a two bedroom home would be about $1000. A comparable salary today would be $830 dollars a week! For someone without a college education and for many who have one, this is unheard of.

In 1984 laid-off cannery workers gathered together to duscuss their future.

Bea Avina remembers how good the pay was. "The conditions weren't exactly great, but nobody seemed to mind because the pay was so good," she said. "In fact, there wasn't any job that we could get that even came close to the pay at the canneries."

For Avina, working in the canneries was like waking up in the morning. It was a way of life, and as far as she was concerned it would continue on for generations to come. "Nobody thought that they would ever work anywhere else," she said. "We all thought that we would retire there and our children would retire in the canneries as well," Bea said, her face saddening with the thought. After all, Bea spent nearly 50 years in the canneries—she began working there in 1949, when she was 19 years old, and stopped working for the canneries in the early 80's when global competition, environmental pressures and other factors contributed to the demise of local canneries.

There were many people who were out of work and suffered a great deal. Bea was one of the fortunate ones, finding another job right away. She began working for United Way, and was actually involved in the relief effort for the unemployed cannery workers. No doubt, everyone in the community was hit hard, even those that found other employment. The life-style that they became accustomed to changed dramatically. Simply put, no job could match the salary at the canneries.


The Story of the Tuna Industry

The tuna industry began way back in 1903 by accident. Sardines were the fish of choice back then, but one day they just disappeared. At a sardine packing plant in San Pedro, an employee decided to pack the empty cans with albacore, which at that time was considered a "nuisance" fish with no known commercial value.

The albacore tuna was then given a public testing that year at the Pomona Fair and surprisingly, the public was pleased with the taste. The albacore was erratic in it's appearance off the Pacific Coast, however, and this disturbed the canners. Needing a stable supply, they asked M.O. Medina to take a chance and fish far south of San Diego. They would be paid $100 dollars a ton for whatever yellowfin or skipjack tuna that was caught. Medina and his brothers loaded their boat to the brim with tuna and that was to be the birth of San Diego's high seas tuna fleet.

The most significant events that damaged the industry in San Diego occurred during the post WWII years and in the 70's.

Interestingly enough, during the war, the tuna boats were used to carry food to soldiers in the Western Pacific. "They were ideal for carrying food because they were like one big refrigerator," said Harold Cary, who worked in the tuna industry for 57 years and is now writing a book.

During the war, almost all of the tuna fleet was used to aid in the war effort. According to Cary, the state department also made a deal to buy more canned tuna from Mexico. They thought that this would encourage the building of more canneries, but they didn't take into account that Mexico had it's own population to feed and the plan consequently failed.

After WWII, competition from the Japanese was fierce. The Japanese began to can the tuna in brine or water and for some reason or another, they were able to substantially cut the trade duties that they had been paying. This put intense pressure on San Diego canneries, which began to close down. Mr. Cary went to Washington D.C. to oppose the new measure but to no avail. "No matter what we did we were not able to stop that from happening. We simply lacked the political clout."

The other major occurrence and the most memorable was the campaign to save the purpoises. The environmentalists were claiming that between 100 and 200 thousand porpoises were being killed every year. This was a hotly contested number but the fishermen did everything they could to stop the killing of porpoises according to Cary. "New nets were developed that allowed porpoises to escape more easily without being harmed," said Cary. "Even when they could not escape, fishermen would dive in the water and physically help them out of the nets," he said. There are even some accounts of divers being attacked and killed by sharks.

Nevertheless, the campaign to save the porpoises proved to be a harmful one for the tuna industry in San Diego. Cary's anger returns when he tells the story of the environmentalists who he feels dealt the last blow to the tuna industry here in the late 70's. He claims foul play on their part.

According to Cary, one member of the environmental group (Earth Group) falsely claimed that he was a cook so that he could go on a fishing expedition off the coast of Peru. Although the boat they went on was a fine ship and up to standards, the captain who was chosen to lead the trip was not. The cook, or kook, according to Cary, brought a video camera and filmed nightmarish scenes of blood and gore that came about because of the incompetent skipper. That film was then used as an example of every tuna expedition.

They used this film as an advertisement throughout the country in an effort to gain more support in the form of money. The fishermen were put under severe pressure by this time and responded by lowering the porpoise mortality rate to nearly zero. But the environmentalist did not let. According to Cary the money they were making drove them to keep up the campaign. In fact, Cary was able to get a hold of their financial records and discovered that these executives were drawing enormous salaries. By this time, it was too late. The industry was doomed.

There were other factors that led to the demise. Increased competition from companies like Mitsubishi added to the dilemma. According to David Burney, president of the U.S. Tuna Foundation in 1994, it was this competition with world trade that led to the collapse. Tuna producers had to move operations closer to where the fish are in the Western Pacific to compete with cheap labor costs. Labor rates in Thailand, for example are 32 cents to 36 cents an hour. Bumble Bee Seafoods, a salmon and tuna canner which boasts over $450 million in sales yearly, operated the last cannery on Harbor drive until the mid-80's. From 1980 to 1985, the San Diego tuna industry collapsed.

In 1980 San Diego was the second largest fishery port in the U.S. with landings, mostly tuna, valued at over $110,600,000. By 1985 that number plummeted to $6,800,000, a 94% decline in less than five years. But the economic impact of that tuna is much greater. Economists estimate that the fish landed here have a multiplier effect of 4 to 7 times the landed value. Consequently, as it rippled through the economy, the economic impact of the landed tuna in 1980 was 400 to 700 million dollars, providing employment for canners, wholesalers, truckers, suppliers, advertisers and a whole pyramid of people.


Why celebrate. Why honor? Why now?

It started with an idea from Tom Martinez, when he started asking, "where did all the cannery workers go?" Martinez spent the last forty years in labor unions involved in advancing the rights of workers, so naturally he was concerned. But everwhere he went he was met with blank stares as if no knew about the cannery workers. Slowly though, stories and names began to seep out. He began to hear about the hundreds of women who used to dress in white `nurse' gowns and come out in droves from the plant on Harbor Drive and he became more curious. His first big break came when he met with Bea Avina, who was involved in the Cannery Workers and Fishermans Union for many years. She had a list of about thirteen names.

Tom immediately began making phone calls and those people he contacted were able to give him the numbers of more cannery workers of old. At the same time, Tom started to enlist partners in hopes of putting together an affair to pay tribute to the workers of this town. Frank Sarmiento, President of the Labor Council for Latin American Advancement, was one of the first to agree to sponsor the event on behalf of his organization and he was more than willing to pledge support. Sarmiento, who studies labor history, talked about the important historical aspects of the canneries. "This is important for a variety or reasons. For women, this predated the Rosie the Riveter movement during WWII. Women were able to get jobs that paid well and they were accepted by the canneries," he said. "The opportunities were unprecedented."

On a personal note, both of Sarmiento's grandparents worked in the canneries and his mother, Maria Arias also worked there in the 40's and 50's. "My mother was in the position where she had to find a job and support her family. The cannery allowed her to do that," he said. In addition, their was something dynamic about working in the canneries in that those involved developed a strong work ethic. Sarmiento's work ethic today continues to be connected to that spirit harnessed at the canneries.

For Port Commissioner Frank Urtasun, there was no question about whether or not they (the Port Commission) would support the cannery celebration. When his parents, Diego and Isabel Urta-sun came to the United States, it was the canneries that fed and housed them for over 20 years. "It really hits home for me because I know how hard these people worked," said Urtasun. "So when they asked if I would support them I said hell yes, this has been a long time coming!"

The ball, officially, was rolling and Radio Latina and the Chicano Federation climbed on board to lend a helping hand as well. If Tom had it his way, this celebration on September 7 won't be the last. "These people were vital to the economic development of the city and I hope that they will be remembered for years to come."

This could be the start of something special—celebrating the contribution of the workers in the development of San Diego. This is a part of our heritage both as San Diegans and as Chicanos. Current history books seem to discount the plight of the laborers but this story is too important to forget. The tuna industry was an overwhelming force in the economy since 1903 and one of the pillars of that industry was the cannery workers. As more cannery workers pass away, their hard work needs to be remembered.

FeedbackReturn to current page