Editor’s Note: Gloria Betancourt passed away on February 13, 2021 in Watsonville, California. She was born in Guadalajara, Jalisco, Mexico and immigrated to California in 1961 as a teenager with her mother Maria Morales to join her father Pascal who had been working the fields in California. She was a longtime cannery worker in Watsonville where she raised a family of three children. Gloria Betancourt was a beloved member of community who volunteered at the Watsonville Senior Center for many years.
Like hundreds of SF Bay Area volunteers who journeyed to Watsonville in support of 1,000 Chicano and Mexicana cannery workers, I first met Gloria Betancourt at one of the numerous rallies. She was a striking presence who commanded the allegiance of her fellow workers with her militant spirit and unwavering commitment for justice. She made the student activists from local campuses, fellow trade unionists, and community members feel welcome with her smile and warmth. Through the course of the 18-month strike, the workers took on the do-nothing leadership of the local Teamsters union and fought for rank-and-file leadership committed to winning demands for higher wages, health care, and better working conditions.
Gloria Betancourt was in the thick of the battles asserting the rights of women to become leaders. I tried to capture some of that fighting spirit in a short documentary I shot for the Cannery Workers Support Committee. We had little funds, but we plunged ahead and followed the strikers with a VHS camera. I’ll provide a link to the video at the end of this article and you can see the valiant struggle of the workers and the broad support they gained in what was then the longest strike in U.S.
To get the full account of the Watsonville strike, read “ Song of the Stubborn One Thousand: The Watsonville Canning Strike, 1985-1987” by Peter Shapiro. It’s available via Haymarket Books and at local libraries.
To fully appreciate Gloria Betancourt’s leadership and character, I asked fellow activist Shiree Teng, who moved to Watsonville during the strike, to provide her remembrances of working with Gloria. – Eddie Wong
Eddie: How did you meet Gloria Bettencourt? What were you first impressions of her?
Shiree: I first met Gloria when I attended a rally to support the striking cannery workers in 1985 at a park in Watsonville. It was a Saturday. We drove in town on a bus, full of supporters from the Bay. Gloria was striking in every way. Talk, platinum blond hair, inch-long eyelashes (back when they were not ubiquitous like today), stiletto high heels. I was star struck. A whole lot surprised thinking … she’s a cannery worker? I thought.
Then I heard her speak. Her voice was calm. She spoke with clarity, simplicity and conviction. In Spanish and then English, Gloria reminded her fellow workers why they’d walked out. That they were fighting for their right to a decent wage, health insurance, and to be treated as human beings deserving of respect and dignity. When she finished, her words received thunderous applause from workers and supporters alike. I was a convinced ally from that moment on. Here’s someone who is speaking her truth.
I learned from Gloria that working in a cannery is steps up from stoop labor in the fields where so many workers from Mexico spend their entire lives, moving from town to town following whatever crop was in season, dragging their children with them. Working in canneries may be tiring, as the pace was dictated by the nonstop noise and speed of the machines, but it allowed children like hers to start and finish their year at the same school. That represented a brighter future for the whole family. I was committed by the end of that afternoon. So much so that I decided to move to Watsonville to support the strike full time.
Eddie: What work did you do together during the strike?
Shiree: We organized picket line shifts so that there’s always a presence outside of the gate 24/7. We organized food drives so every striking family would have some food every week. We organized outreach and educational events where small groups of strikers would go out of town to speak to students, other workers, unions about what was happening to the Watsonville workers. We organized rallies to pump up the spirit of strikers, their families and especially the children with hundreds of homemade tamales, loads of barbecue chicken and rice. We organized Christmas toy drives so strikers’ children would have a semblance of celebration come December 25th. We organized a hunger strike to bring attention to what felt like an endless struggle for rights and freedom.
For 18 months, this work to organize for material support was constant. Moreover, the activities served to keep strikers and their families’ spirits uplifted, intact and toward one unified goal – to win.
Eddie: What impressed you the most about the way she went about organizing her fellow workers?
Shiree: Gloria was always a listener. She wanted to understand what was most important to her fellow workers. She would sometimes write things down as she listened. She had a way of integrating what she thought was key along with what other workers told her. She was willing to negotiate and come up with solutions. She was not rhetorical or theoretical. Gloria was practical about what strikers needed and wanted and took into consideration what the union was advocating. She understood the various complex and sometimes contradicting interests at play. She looked for wins and always what was in the interests of the workers first and foremost. She knew the majority of the strikers were hardworking women who were raising their families on these union jobs. She was very clear and committed to that.
Eddie: How did this work impact her and her family? It must have been such an intense time given the lack of income and the huge pressures of dealing with the strike and negotiations.
Shiree: Between the little bit of strike support dollars from the Teamsters and allied union supporters, Gloria as well as the other workers lived on meager incomes for the duration of the 18-months. It was very hard. Families pooled resources, shared food, hand-me-downs, and many had to go out of town to get work. Gloria’s brother Armando went back to Mexico for work. Gloria’s children at the time were in elementary school… I remember her buying large bottles of brandless soda pop, huge bags of chips for them as that was far less costly than juice and vegetables. I learned about food justice first-hand from watching Gloria shop.
Eddie: Part of the struggle was not only against the cannery owners but with the corrupt, do-nothing leadership of the local Teamsters Union. How did Gloria come to mount a reform slate in the elections for a new leadership?
Shiree: Gloria and the majority of the strikers saw through the corrupt Teamsters as she had seen how the union officials acted for the 18-years she’d been at the plant. She knew she couldn’t rely on the Teamsters to fight for the workers. She knew she had to take things into her own hands if she wanted to see change. She knew the workers would agree and align with each other rather than stick with a union that acted in cahoots with the owners. But she also knew the entrenched power of the union. There were months when the union officials would not let the workers meet inside their own union hall. So, Gloria would have workers meet in the union hall’s parking lot. We’d stand in large circles, and she’d conduct the meeting as if it was just normal to stand at their own union hall’s parking lot to share and discuss the latest news and make decisions. Gloria just rolled with what was given and made the best with what cards they were dealt.
Eddie: Even though, the reform slate did not win, how did Gloria continue to play a leadership role in the strike?
Shiree: Losing the union election was a blow to Gloria as well as the others. But resilient as she was, that didn’t stop her from what was at stake. Gloria took her lumps, renewed her spirit and fought on.
She was one of six hunger strikers who led a final march from the plant to the church. They went the half mile distance on their knees to call attention to their plight for economic justice. The local Catholic church at which many strikers were parishioners originally didn’t agree to open its doors to the workers but then at the very last minute reversed their decision and received the strikers in the end. That was a big deal. That gesture revived many of the strikers’ spirits. It was a very moving and emotional procession. I will forever remember that day.
Gloria in so many ways personified the community of strikers. Determined to win. Balanced in their approach. Practical in their decisions. Clear on their righteous demands. Willing to negotiate. Always cloaked in their hopefulness like a shield and superpower. Forever locked in their solidarity with each other like peas in pods.
Eddie: How has Gloria affected how you look at leadership and organizing?
Shiree: I became a young organizer at 17. Today, I work to support and lift up the leadership of other Black, Indigenous and leaders of color in my work. I enter each and every room and situation with an organizer’s eyes and heart. Gloria has shown me the power of deeply listening to the wisdom that is in every room, in every person, and staying emergent to what is possible and realistic in every situation.
Eddie: What are the most important things to remember about Gloria and the thousands of Latinx women who took a stand for dignity and workers’ rights?
Shiree: When your cause is just, stay determined. When your fellow workers are suffering, address the pain, don’t deny or ignore it. When your children are wanting, tell them the truth. When there’s darkness, be the light. When scared, remain in your purpose.
The thousands of Watsonville workers and families showed me is that workers are fully capable of seeing clearly and making strong decisions that advance the collective. They may need some organization and support to be at their best here and there as we all need help and support.
Natural leaders like Gloria, Lydia, Chavelo, Guillermina, Esperanza, Salome, and the dozens and dozens of others are in every workplace, every organization, every block and neighborhood.
Women are the most marginalized and often un-appreciated and under-appreciated backbone leaders in every home, workplace and community. From Watsonville, their call for justice, dignity and victory reverberated far and wide. Gloria’s 5’ 9” inch frame with long flowing platinum blond hair with her fist in the air firing up any rally or meeting will forever remain in my memory. She inspires me to stand taller, speak truer, stand in my fuller power every day.
Shiree Teng is an independent consultant who specializes in program evaluation, strategy and leadership development with social and racial justice organizations, foundations, and community groups. She is the board chair of Communities United for Restorative Youth Justice (CURYJ) based in Oakland, CA and the 501C4 board chair of the Ella Baker Center. To learn more about her work visit www.shireeteng.org.
To view the documentary video about the Watsonville Cannery Workers’ Strike, click ¡Si Se Puede!