JOSE RENTERIA | From Farmworker to Union Organizer
Jose Renteria… In His Own Words
I was working at a lettuce company called JJ Crossetti. I was in the lettuce crews, the piece rate lettuce crews. The lettuce workers were like a different type of worker. It’s one thing to be a farmworker. But if you’re a lettuce worker, you’re high. You’re the top of the workers, the cream of the workers. They were the most militant. I saw that in the 1970 strike. I said, hmm, I want to be a lettuce worker. I was working with broccoli crews, I was driving the tractor, pulling the trailer, and one day I decided I was going to move to the lettuce crews as soon as lettuce season started. I told my dad and he said, ‘Are you crazy? You have an easy job! You’re going to cut lettuce??’ ‘Dad, dad, I’m going to cut lettuce.’ He disagreed with me, but I went. That was my thinking, I want to go with the more militant workers. When the union gets stronger, I want to be there with the group that’s going to be in front, not behind.
“For people in the Salinas area, Cesar Chavez did not organize the workers — the workers were ready. It was not like Delano. People formed organizing committees. I was part of the Watsonville organizing committee. We had meetings once a month. We knew everything that was going on in Delano, since 69, 68. So by 1970 we were very aware the boycott had success and they had signed [grape] contracts. There was a big group of workers, not everybody, but a big group of workers in the Salinas Valley that knew what was going on. So when they signed the contracts we said, ‘OK, now is our turn. San Joaquin valley won, so now it’s our turn. Now is the lettuce companies’ turn to join the union.’ So when he came to Salinas in 1970, we were ready for him. He didn’t have to do anything. We were ready.
My father was an original bracero. He came in 1942 and worked all through the 40s as a bracero. In 1950 they were not bringing enough people from Mexico, my father came as an illegal immigrant. A grower from Bakersfield gave him a paper so he could be a legal resident. He worked all his life in the fields. By the 60s, he already had a lot of experience working in the fields, seeing all the injustice. So by hearing that somebody wanted to do something for farmworkers, it was of great interest for somebody like my father, and I’m sure there were a lot of people like him, who said, ‘Oh yeah, we’ve been waiting … .for the messiah, in other words!’ So without knowing Cesar, we joined the union.
When he came in 1970 to a hall in Watsonville, we were waiting for him. The hall was full of people, maybe 300 people. It was full to capacity. We were waiting for Cesar. Then somebody said, ‘Cesar’s coming!’ He appeared in the door. Everybody stood up and started clapping and screaming . I had never seen anything like it in my life before. I was 16. It was like a rock star. It really impressed me a lot, how people really love Cesar that much. It took a few minutes for people to stop clapping. He walked through the middle and people were still screaming and clapping. It was unbelievable. And that was the first time he had gone to Watsonville. So that’s why I say, he didn’t organize people in Salinas/Watsonville – people were ready.
I can’t remember everything he said, all I remember, how he was very soft spoken and how he went right to the point of the things that we had in our minds, things that we every day think about injustice, or things that happen in the fields, he was just hitting all those points. So to me it was a great speech, whatever he said, it was a great speech.
In 1975, I was volunteering in the local UFW office, in Watsonville. Marshall Ganz and Roberto Garcia went to the Watsonville office and I was there. Santos, the guy in charge of the field office, introduced me: ‘Jose is one of my workers from Watsonville, he’s always here helping me, he participates in marches, in rallies, in boycotts.’ I was very involved in the Gallo boycott.
Roberto knew me a little because I was in the 1970 strike. They mentioned they were going to recruit organizers for the election campaigns that were coming. They asked me if I was interested, and I said, ‘Yes!!’ They invited me to a meeting here in Salinas, where they were going to have a general meeting, Marshall Ganz and Roberto Garcia, and invite people to join the union as organizers for ten weeks.
I was hired, right at the beginning of July, right after the Fourth of July. We went to La Paz for training for two weeks. Fred Ross Sr. was conducting the training. He taught us how to organize workers, basically. How to talk to workers. It was something that was in my genes, I guess. I was very into learning how to organize workers. One of the things I remember that I learned from Fred is that when you go to a crew, try to look for the leader of the group. And then if you got the leader of the group, you convince him to join your side, and it will be easy to organize the rest of the workers. That was the key. And I applied that every single time I started organizing a new group.
At the end of the lettuce season, after elections, I left the union and went back to work for Crossetti. I became the negotiating committee president. I was seated at all the negotiations. I signed the contract. It was a huge difference. We had a voice. We had respect. Before, there were occasions when the supervisor will come into the fields and see something he didn’t like, and he would just kick the lettuce to the workers, or throw the lettuce to the workers. It happened. I saw it. It was my crew. After we signed the contract, the supervisor was still there, but he did not treat us that way.
My feeling was to stay and work with the union. Some of the other organizers, they said, ‘We’re only here for ten weeks, and then we go back to the fields.’ That was not my plan. My plan was to stay. Most of them went back to the fields. But I liked it, that’s what I wanted to do. I wanted to organize workers and work for the union. I had a very firm belief that we were doing the right thing and it was making a big difference for the workers and we were making big changes. I really felt at the time that what we were doing was the right thing.
After the lettuce season ended in 1976, I was back being a volunteer in the office. One day, Eliseo Medina, who was in charge of contract administration, the field offices, was there talking to Santos. They had just signed a new company, but they were short of organizers. Eliseo looked at me and said, ‘What’s Jose doing?’ He said, ‘Get the paperwork, sign him up!’ When the season ended, they moved to Imperial Valley, they left me in charge of the office.
By knowing that we have this leader that’s supporting us, that gave some sense of power to workers. Even the workers at non-union companies, they knew that the company was going to treat them right because otherwise, we’re going to Cesar Chavez’s union and we’re going to call an election. It was like having a big stick.
I think everybody benefitted from the union, even though we were not able to sign all the vegetable growers. Those that signed, improved conditions in the fields for workers. They got medical insurance, holiday pay, vacation pay, better treatment. And those that didn’t sign with the union tried to follow the same pattern, because they didn’t want to be unionized. So they tried to do the same thing. So everybody benefited, everybody.
I didn’t finish high school. For me, the union was my high school, my college.
My daughter who is 17 right now, she is like me when I was 16 and 17. She asks me a lot of questions about Cesar and the union and this and that. She knows the whole story. She knows things went wrong at the end. We went to see the movie [“Cesar Chavez’] when it opened. She’s into politics. She supports Sanders. My daughter is going to Notre Dame High School. She’s a junior. A lot of the kids from vegetable growers go there. Last month they had a discussion in my daughter’s class about immigration. My daughter took over the meeting. They started talking about farmworkers. She came home and said, ‘Oh some of the crews, they treat the workers nice.’ I said, ‘Yeah, mjia, maybe now, but years back, before Cesar Chavez, it was not like that. Maybe now they treat the workers better.’”
FILING THE PETITION
“I’m filing a petition for JJ Crossetti company, the company I had worked for for six years. I had gone on strike and protested because they signed with the Teamsters in 1973. We didn’t win the strike. The Teamsters came to the fields, they said ‘OK, now we signed a contract with your company, you have to sign.’ I refused to sign, me and my father and some other people. At the end Roberto Garcia came and told us, ‘You know, there’s nothing we can do, just sign, and stay there and wait, things are going to change in the future.’ I didn’t have that much hope. Then it was my time: 1975. I said, OK, this is when we go back to the company and say, ‘Yeah, we want to have an election. We want to have a union. But not your union — our union!’ Going back in 75, it felt very good.”
“The workers are always proud of their company, even though back then they were so ignored by the company. But the workers were always proud of where they worked. So, “ I’m from D’Arrigo Company.
They were proud of their coworkers, not so much of the company at that time, but their coworkers, and their crews. And that’s why they show, ‘We’re from D’Arrigo, we’re here to support Cesar Chavez. To support the cause.’”
“The first thing we did, we usually get together in the morning, with the coordinators. Then we go out in the fields, to talk to workers before they commence work. Then we go back to office. Then of course lunch time we go into the field, talk to workers. In the evenings, we’d have meetings with our committees of workers in the evenings, but after that, we always have a meeting with Marshall. Before we go home, we had to report everything we did to Marshall.
Everyone in the union, for us, it was super new. Something we’d never seen before.”
“It was Labor Day. People were very excited: the first day the ALRB would be open, waiting for the next morning, to be the first ones to file a petition. It was a lot of fun. People were singing, people were talking, telling stories. I smoked a cigarette for the first time in my life. It was a long night; people were smoking, I said, ‘Oh, give me one.’
I was there when [Teamster boss] Jose Charles arrived. we were on line and he came with his petitions and tried to get ahead of us. And we said, oh no …. Luis Valdez tried to sing a song for him, but he was not interested. Luis was there in the morning.”
“I went to every single rally that happened here in Watsonville, or Salinas.
One of the things I remember Cesar saying in all these rallies was, be an organizer. Talk to your coworkers, talk to your friends, talk to your family about the union. Always be an organizer. That’s the good thing that I learned from Cesar in all those meetings, that he said in all those meetings: you should yourself be an organizer.”
WEST COAST FARM ELECTIONS
“I remember Cesar went to the West Coast election. I was there. It was something very new to the workers. Everybody was very excited about voting. Everybody believed there was something good that was about to happen.
For us, organizers, and for many of the workers, Cesar was what is now for a lot of people, the pope. He was the most important person for farmworkers and the closest thing to be a saint. We saw him as a person who is not corrupt, probably is never going to be corrupt, a person we can trust, and a person we can follow. By using his name, a lot of times, it was enough. To tell people, ‘You know, we’re from Chavez’s union.’ That was enough for people to trust us right away.”
JOSE RENTERIA TODAY
After he left the union, Jose was hired by Matsui Nursery, to help with employee relations and to negotiate a contract when the UFW won an election at the flower grower. He has been there for more than three decades, rising to run the Human Relations department for the Salinas company, which is now one of the largest orchid growers in the world.