Working in a Packing House
from Getting Together (circa 1972); Chinese-American Workers: Past & Present
Last summer I took a job at a fruit packing house in Sanger, a small California town 10 miles from Fresno. At that time Fresno wages were $1 25 to $1.65 an hour. This job paid $2.00 an hour. I took it hoping to earn a bit more money.
Sanger is almost a classical working town. The main street, Academy, runs through the town. All the streets parallel to it are numbered, and all the ones that cut across it named after the alphabets. A railroad track runs parallel to Academy, behind most of the packing houses. The town is situated at the foot of the Sierra Nevadas, and is surrounded by vineyards and orchards on all sides. The majority of the population is Chicano. Whites are a minority here. Also this is the town with the largest number of second-hand cars that I've seen.
In June, the first month I worked there, work was slow. Due to the weather in May, the peaches did not ripen in time. I, together with around fifty other women workers who manned the giant monster machine, worked an average of four hours every other day. I hardly earned anything the whole month.
Then July came; the temperature rose to a constant high of l05o; to 112o;F. The peaches ripened all at the same time. We worked 10 hours a day, Monday through Saturday. There are four types of jobs for women in every packing house: that of a forelady, fruit grader, fruit packer, and box stamper. All workers, except the foreladies, man the giant machine. At one end freshly picked fruit is dumped in and at the other end fruit comes out graded, packed, boxed, and stamped at an average speed of 15 boxes a minute, according to my estimation. The machine is highly automated. Workers only do the part that the machine cannot do. The job of box stamping is a beginner's job for it is unskilled. All the worker does is stand close to the end of the line, and stamp the boxes with the company's name as they come on the conveyor belts. One worker takes care of 2 belts. This means that one worker stamps an average of 12,000 boxes a day.
Fruit grading means dumping out bad fruit as they come on a conveyor belt. It is not as easy as it sounds, for graders have to learn to tell a "sun-tanned" plum from a good one, a scarred one from a scratched one, while there are hundreds of fruit on the belt. And they can't throw out one more or less either, for there are foreladies at both ends of the line checking what remained on the belt and what was thrown out.
A fruit packer's job is a skilled job. A packer packs fruit in boxes according to size. A fast packer makes a bit more money for the company pays an extra 12 cents for every box a worker packs over the quota of 14 boxes an hour. Workers work their heads off for that extra 12 cents a box.
NO TIME LEFT
There were four foreladies at the packing house I worked at. All of them were white. Their job is to keep a close watch on all the workers to make sure they work as hard as the company wants them to. Workers have to ask their permission to go to the bathroom when the machine is in motion. Workers are usually (not always) given a 10 minute break every two hours. Lunch hour is one hour, supper hour is one hour. So for a 10-hour working day a worker actually has to spend 12 hours at the plant, under over 105 F heat, the only ing device being a large tube that blows out warm air that run over two-thirds of the positions where workers stand.
Let's allow a worker one hour a day on transportation to work and eight hours of sleep, plus 12 hours at the plant, would make 21 hours out of 24. Workers still have to shower, cook for their families, and take care of their children. Sometimes they don't shower even though they are drenched with sweat; they dive into bed the minute they hit home, for they have to stand on their feet as long as they work. The machine is not built so workers can sit down and man it. The fruit comes on different types of conveyor belts. Grading belts rotate the fruit as they go. This strains your eyes out. Also it is very easy to get dizzy or pass out coupled with that heat. Workers are constantly moving their arms whether they grade or pack fruit or stamp boxes.
One fellow worker-15 years old-once asked me, "Do you feel like somebody had beaten you up each morning when you wake up?" I said, "Yeah." Workers get sick on the line very often. One day six women got sick and had to go home. I got sick three times out of the two and a half months that I worked there. It is bad to get sick for then you have to go home early and you don't get paid for the time you miss.
The time-clocks they have are army clocks with 100 minutes to an hour. They pay your last hour of the day by the quarter which means that if you work 25 min. on a regular clock they pay you for 15 min. Workers learn after a while that the company time is very precious time. The 10 minute breaks are on company time that's why they give you 10 minutes and no more even though the California State law says 15. It takes a worker 2 minutes to walk to the place where she can sit; 5 minutes to get in a bathroom because there are so few, and that leaves her about 3 minutes to sit down at each break.
Any work time after 8 hours a day is overtime. Workers get paid time and a half, i.e. $3.00 an hour. Workers do not get breaks while they are working overtime. Also, the mechanic always speeds up the machine so the fruit will get packed sooner and the workers get less overtime pay. It is no joke when he does that. For a machine can go faster even after eight hours a day, but people can't. Whenever he does that, he always alerts the foreladies and they in turn intensify supervision. At about the ninth hour you feel like you can't take it no more. You keep going so you can keep the job.
I learned survival tactics to combat the 105oF heat from my fellow workers. You go to the bathroom during breaks, wash off your face and arms with cold water, then get a paper towel, wet it and wrap it around your neck and go back to work with it on. At first I wouldn't do it. I was a college student taking a summer job, I didn't want to "sink so low." After a week or so in that heat, I gave in. The mechanic requested the company to build an air-conditioned lunch room above the ladies' room but it was rejected by the management.
51% of the plant's shares are owned by one white family, that has never set eyes on the packing house, and live in Beverly Hills, L.A. and owns property in Wyoming and Florida. 24 1/2% is owned by the field manager and other 24 1/2% by the sales manager. The field manager is in charge of the packing house's field labor force which is all male fruit pickers. The sales manager stays in the plant's air-conditioned office all the time.
The summer before I worked there, the field workers went on strike, picketing outside the plant under the leadership of Caesar Chavez, head of the United Farm Workers' Organizing Committee, AFL-CIO. I learned this from a fellow worker, whose father, brothers, brothers-in-law and uncles all work for this same packing house in the fields. Prior to the strike, the field workers were given no breaks, not even lunch breaks, unlike the plant workers. They had to take turns to eat lunch in the field right under the burning sun. Sometimes they were forced to work 7 days a week when the fruits ripened fast. Fruits are considered more important by the company than men. And the checks were ALWAYS short. The two managers were messing with them. You can't really know how it feels until it happens to you.
Workers in the plant got short checks every week, too. Every week I heard about 3 or 4 cases; there were a lot I did not hear about. Most workers do not complain for fear of losing their job. One time we were given no overtime pay, a Mexican woman took it to the forelady and she was later assigned the job of stamping boxes which was a great insult to her as she was one of the plant's top-speed packers. One time my check was short for $2.50. It was the first time I found out how it felt. It wasn't the $2.50 that I missed, but the injustice done to me, the super-exploitation when honest work is not paid for. I went into the office and asked the secretary to straighten it out. She gave me what she gave the others, that the computer takes care of all the pay checks and that maybe the computer made a mistake and that I had to talk to Mr. so and so the next morning. Workers who talked to this Mr. so and so all got yelled at and only one worker that I know retrieved the money due her, and that was because her husband was a foreman in the fields.
Back to the 1970 strike. Caesar Chavez stormed into the office demanding to see the boss with the workers' demands in hand. One of the managers came out to meet the crowd. "He made a long speech saying that the company is all for the workers and blah blah....... like a Bobby Kennedy," my fellow worker said. The workers won a victory. After the strike, two workers at the plant, mother and daughter, whose last name is also Chavez (which is not an uncommon name) were constantly harassed by the foreladies who thought that they were related to Caesar Chavez.
Towards the end of the summer one worker asked me if I was going to go back to school. I mumbled something about not liking school no more. She got very concerned and said, "I think you should go back to school, so you don't have to pack fruit all your life." Quite a few of them asked me about the workers in the country I came from, and were very concerned over their getting even lower wages and working in even worse conditions. They advised me that in that case I should stay in this country and work. These were my fellow workers.