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California Teamsters election tests influence of women, Hispanics

As a hotly contested strike of nearly 2,000 Teamster frozen-food workers enters its fourth month here, workers' attention has shifted to ongoing elections within Teamsters Local 912. The election for nine union offices pits a slate of moderate, incumbent officials against an insurgent slate of militant strikers. The election is being watched closely by management at the two struck companies, Watsonville Canning and Richard Shaw Inc., two of the largest packers of frozen vegetables in the United States.

Whichever slate wins, it is likely that Latins will hold significant union positions for the first time in the local's history, part of a growing trend in California and Southwest unions.

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The strike began Sept. 9 when Watsonville Canning unilaterally lowered wages for production workers by 30 percent and up to 60 percent for skilled workers. The companies maintain that they must cut wages in order to compete against cheaper, out-of-state imports.

Striking workers charge that company discrimination against Mexican nationals and Chicanos (Mexican-Americans) is an underlying issue in the strike; a claim strongly denied by the companies. Latins make up 85 percent of the strikers and about 70 percent of the union.

The workers' argument gained credence on Nov. 20 when a jury awarded Juan Parra, a former Watsonville Canning worker, $135,000 because of discrimination. Management is expected to appeal the decision.

The issue of discrimination and Latin empowerment also figures in the upcoming union elections. For 33 years, Local 912 has been led by Richard King, the white secretary-treasurer who speaks no Spanish.

Rank and file Teamsters sharply criticized Mr. King for his policies of accomodation with management. King and a number of his top aides chose not to run for reelection this year.

Sergio Lopez, a Chicano business agent under King, is running unopposed for secretary-treasurer and heads a slate that includes two white, King prot'eg'es for president and vice president. Mr. Lopez defends King's policies.

``He's been a good labor leader,'' says Lopez. ``I have some ideas that might be different from his, but the basic general philosophy would be the same. . . .I do not consider the employers the enemy.''

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In recent months, Lopez has taken some stands independent of King, for example, marching with striking workers in support demonstrations.

Lopez's slate is challenged by a ``People's Slate,'' made up mainly of militant Mexican and Chicano strikers. Gloria Betancourt is the first Mexican woman candidate for president in the local's history. Women are the overwhelming majority in Local 912.

``I feel strongly that women should be represented in the union,'' says Ms. Betancourt. ``All these years it's been men running the head office, and it's hard for women to go there with their problems. Strengthening the women workers will strengthen all workers in the canneries.''

The People's Slate pledges to improve handling of grievances. The slate also promises to significantly reduce officer's salaries, with the money going to membership programs such as child care and job training.

The mail ballots were sent out Dec. 6, and the election results are expected by Dec. 30.

Running unopposed, Sergio Lopez will win secretary-treasurer, but a close race is expected for the other top positions.

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