Strike turns into fight over replacement workers

April 17, 1994|By New York Times News Service

STOCKTON, Calif. -- Until a decade ago, women at the Diamond Walnut processing plant were trailblazers. Long allowed only to sort and pack nuts, the women were allowed to vie with men for better jobs, such as running machinery.

But today the women of Diamond Walnut are only vying to get their jobs back. A strike that began over wages 2 1/2 years ago has turned into a challenge of the right of employers to hire permanent replacement workers.

Diamond says it owes a huge debt to the replacement workers. '' It says they worked long days and weekends in 1991 to ship Diamond's biggest harvest ever, saving growers from financial disaster in the face of the strike.

Of the 225 strikers, two-thirds are women. They have been living on their Teamsters' union strike pay of $200 a week, one-half to two-thirds of what many of them earned at Diamond.

The workers hired to replace them are mainly younger men, who make an average of $8.50 an hour, about what the strikers had been earning.

The strike has drawn the attention of the Clinton administration, which is citing Diamond Walnut in urging Congress to stop employers from dismissing workers who strike.

Using permanent replacement workers infuriates unions because they say it undermines their most effective weapon in standing up to management. But some companies argue that the strategy is necessary to stay in business.

Labor Secretary Robert Reich sent the head of his women's bureau, Karen Nussbaum, to investigate the strike. He also won both sides' agreement to discuss their differences this month with John Calhoun Wells, director of the federal Mediation and Conciliation Service.

Diamond, an 82-year-old cooperative owned by 2,000 growers, is the world's largest supplier of walnuts, shipping 200,000 tons a year. The seeds of the current trouble were sown almost a decade ago. To save the company from bankruptcy, the workers and their union, Teamsters' Local 601, agreed in 1985 to pay cuts of 30 percent and 40 percent, with wages dropping to $6 and $7 an hour from $10.

Diamond has since rebounded. It sold $204 million worth of walnuts last year, the most ever, and $46 million more than five years ago. Profits nearly doubled to $11.2 million in the same period.

Last year, the company paid growers nearly 72 cents a pound for their nuts, 26 cents more than in 1989 and twice the amount of 1985.

But as Diamond's revenue rose, workers complained that only about a dollar an hour had been restored to their wages. In 1991, they sought a raise of another dollar an hour, which would still have left them below their earlier wages.

Diamond offered a raise of 10 cents. It also offered bonuses, ranging from a few hundred dollars to several thousand, in good years. At the same time the company asked workers to pay for part of their health insurance -- $33 a month for a family.

Seeing no gain, the workers walked out Sept. 4, 1991.

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