Cannery Life: Del Monte in the Santa Clara Valley

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For over 100 years, the Del Monte Corporation and its ancestors – the California Packing Corporation, the California Fruit Canners Association and the San Jose Fruit Packing Company – processed high quality fruits and vegetables in San Jose, California. The center of Del Monte’s production was Plant Number 3, a sprawling complex on an irregular triangular site between San Carlos Street, Auzerais Avenue and Los Gatos Creek. Discover the history of Del Monte’s Plant Number 3 through its years of service from 1893 to 1999. Learn firsthand about cannery life from several Plant #3 employees through their video oral histories.

Through the Years

1872-1916

The fruit canning industry began in San Jose in the 1870s. The bumper crops of the late 1860s and early 1870s cost many orchardists their livelihoods, as prices plummeted with the glut of fruit in the local market. Entrepreneurs, fruit growers and scientists applied their energies to finding a way to preserve the bounty of the valley’s fruit harvest long enough to reach distant markets. The solution would be found in drying and canning the fruits of the Santa Clara Valley.

A number of small, usually family-owned, canning and packing companies began operations in the 1880s. San Jose Fruit Packing Company [SJFPC] was one of the most successful in the Valley and grew to include several factories. SJFPC competed in a crowded field of dozens of enterprises. Small canneries ruthlessly competed with each other to gain any small share of the emerging market. Some canners stole crops from their competitors. Others filled their own cans with sawdust or other filling material to save money. In the 1890s, growers and canners formed cooperative organizations as a way to strengthen their presence in the marketplace and try to guarantee their livelihoods.

San Jose Fruit Packing Co.

Dr. James Madison Dawson, his wife Eloise Jones Dawson, and their son Thomas Dawson are credited with the first successful commercial canning operation in the Santa Clara Valley. Their first pack in 1871 was 300 cases of peaches, apricots, pears and plums, processed in a woodshed in the Dawson’s backyard. The company was founded in 1872 under the name JM Dawson & Co., and later incorporated as the San Jose Fruit Packing Company. As a physician, Dr. Dawson was particularly concerned with the safety of canned food and applied his scientific knowledge to cooking and preserving methods. Mrs. Dawson managed the cooking process with scientific input from her husband. Tom Dawson’s skills as a tinsmith were applied to developing efficient canning processes. The experiments of this family partnership solved many of the challenges of the early canning industry.

In 1893 the San Jose Fruit Packing Company constructed a state-of-the-art cannery on Sainsevain Street (now Auzerais Avenue) near downtown San Jose. The triangular site was bordered by Los Gatos Creek to the east, a railroad spur to the west and Sainsevain Street to the south. The original cannery consisted of three large two-story timber-frame buildings and many smaller structures. The main warehouse, later called Building “F,” was located on the railroad spur. Building “F” functioned as the packing, shipping and canned fruit warehouse. Building “G” housed the steam bath and cooking room. Building “H” contained the fruit preparation department and empty can storage. Building “C” was for jelly manufacturing. The plant complex also included a receiving room, a can warehouse, and offices. In the late 1890s it was the largest fruit cannery in the world, shipping 275,000 cases (6.6 million cans) in 1895 alone.

The San Jose Fruit Packing Company was the incubator for several of the creative young businessmen who would lead the canning industry. Co-founder Tom Dawson went on to serve as general superintendent of California Packing Corporation [Calpak]. Robert I. Bentley, who was to become the first president of Calpak, worked for SJFPC during its first decade of operation.

The Early Years

The early years of fruit production in the Valley witnessed extensive experimentation to perfect the processes of preserving, canning and drying fruit. It was by no means obvious how to properly prepare and cook the fruit, how to safely seal the cans, or even which varieties of fruit would work best.

Drying could be done easily at an orchard, with cut fruit spread on wooden trays to dry in the sun. Experiments in this area eventually produced several fruits that dried beautifully and retained their taste and appearance, including le petit prune d’Agen. Throughout most of the 20th century, fruit was dried in the orchards and then sent to factories to be packed and shipped.

Canning, on the other hand, required a considerable capital investment. Despite its backyard origins, canning was most efficiently done in a factory. As with so many other industries in this era, fruit production benefited from the emerging science of industrial efficiency and the adoption of the assembly line. Innovators like the Dawson family, J.C. Ainsley of Campbell, and others worked out the kinks of preparing and packing fruit. In these years, all steps along the production line were done by hand, including steaming, peeling, cutting, slicing, sorting, packing in cans, cooking, soldering, labeling and warehousing.

Labor

Work tasks in the cannery were neatly divided between food preparation and industrial work, both skilled and unskilled.

The skilled work and heavy lifting in the canneries were typically done by men. Skilled tinsmiths and machinists developed the canning technology, and built and maintained the machines. Unskilled male workers brought the produce into the cannery, loaded cans, and warehoused the finished products. Many of these jobs were likely to be year round, since warehouse and machine work could be done during the slow times between harvests. In the early 20th century, immigrant men from southern Europe dominated the canneries’ unskilled labor market. American-born men were more likely to hold skilled technical jobs or management positions. Asian-American men were hired for cannery work, but were typically restricted to unskilled warehouse, labeling and non-packing jobs. Some canneries and packing houses even advertised that their product had been packed “by white labor only,” in line with the virulent anti-Asian racism of this period.

The food preparation tasks were done largely by women. Very early on, cannery operators recognized that women already had skills in sorting, cutting, slicing and preparing fruit. These “domestic” tasks were also considered more appropriate for women than men. Women worked at large tables, where men brought them crates of fruit to be peeled, pitted, sliced or cut. Women were paid based on how much was processed at each table, so the table often worked together as a team to process fruit quickly. These jobs were only available during the canning seasons. As early as 1875, canneries were actively recruiting young women to work during the summer months, promoting it as a way to earn extra money and work with their peers.

California Fruit Canners Assn.

In the canning industry’s infancy, individual orchardists sold their products to small, independent canneries. But as the industry grew, the relationship between growers and canners became increasingly strained, especially over the issue of price. Neither the farmer nor the canner could afford to hold out for the best price when the harvest came in. The product had to be sold quickly before it went bad. No one would make any money if the fruit was left to rot.

The solution to the problem, for both sides, was cooperatives and mergers. Large canning operations could control more of the market and could thus demand a lower price for products. Growers’ cooperatives likewise could control market share, with all members pledging not to sell their produce below the price set by the group.

In 1899, the California Fruit Canners Association was founded. The organization could set purchase prices for crops that challenged those set by growers’ cooperatives. If the Association’s canners would not buy a product, the growers were forced to lower their price or lose the deal completely. Within a few decades, however, the canning companies would start to control the entire production process from seed to consumer.

The CFCA’s founding group included the San Jose Fruit Packing Company, along with seventeen other companies – about half of the canning establishments in California. The CFCA operated 28 fruit and vegetable canneries throughout the state, and acquired operations in Oregon, Washington, Idaho, and Hawaii. Within four years, the Association was the world’s leader in fruit and vegetable canning and drying. But by 1916, the CFCA itself became part of yet another merger of canneries, packing houses and growers: the California Packing Corporation.

1917-1966

The first half of the twentieth century marked the boom years of the canning industry in San Jose. The production boost during World War I put the Santa Clara Valley firmly in the lead of the fruit packing industry. In the 1920s the valley produced 90% of the California pack of fruits and vegetables, a percentage it would retain well into the 1950s. Increased mechanization and more efficient processes gradually replaced most hand-work in the cannery. Labor and management tackled issues of seniority, gender, language, safety, wages and unionization. Through these years, Del Monte Plant #3 hummed along, producing millions of cans of fruits and vegetables.

California Packing Corporation

The California Packing Corporation, or Calpak as it was commonly known, was founded in 1916 by the merger of five major canning enterprises – the California Fruit Canners Association, Griffin & Skelley, Central California Canneries, the J.K. Armsby Company and the Alaska Packers Association. This merger consolidated control not only of canning, drying and packing houses, but also of the brokers who sold these products and the farmers who grew them.

Calpak was a corporate giant which controlled every aspect of food processing from ground to market. The company entered into exclusive long-term contracts with growers to improve the consistent quality of their products. These growers were in essence part of the corporation. With consolidation in the agricultural industry, Calpak would control millions of acres of production. The corporation’s interests included Alaskan fishing operations, Hawaiian pineapple groves, and of course, seed farms, vegetable farms, orchards, canneries, packing houses and drying plants throughout California and the West.

From its headquarters in San Francisco, Calpak controlled a vast empire of production, drying, canning and distribution. The corporation had the financial resources and business ingenuity to create a national – and ultimately global – market for its products. Calpak focused its marketing efforts on the CFCA’s premium brand, Del Monte.

Plant Number 3 on Auzerais Ave.

The old San Jose Fruit Packing Company cannery on Auzerais Avenue was a prime location for the new and improved packing enterprise operated by the California Packing Corporation [Calpak]. The urban site was close to a large pool of labor and within just a few miles of thousands of acres of fruit and nut orchards and vegetable farms. Calpak would expand the plant to process a wide variety of products under one roof, maximizing efficiency by running the plant almost year-round.

Calpak numbered all of its plants shortly after incorporation; the former SFJPC site at 801 Auzerais Avenue became known as Plant Number 3. Calpak inaugurated operations at the site in 1917 with the construction of a 14,440 square foot brick warehouse, later called Warehouse #3. A concrete and brick warehouse – #2 – was added to the south wall of Warehouse #3 in the late 1920’s. Two additional plants on the site – #53 and #153 – processed the pits and other by-products created during the packing process, turning waste into profit.

The main cannery buildings, Warehouses #4 and #20, were constructed in 1941, part of Calpak’s effort to increase production capacity after the Great Depression. These two massive industrial buildings replaced the last remaining original San José Fruit Packing Company buildings. They were ringed by an elevated concrete loading dock.

In addition to the facilities on Auzerais Avenue, Calpak operated several other plants in San José: Plant #4, a vinegar distillery at 533 North Ninth Street; Plant #34, the vinegar works; Plant #39, the pickle factory at 621-55 North Eighth Street; and Plant #51, which processed dried fruit at 50 Bush Street.

Wartime Production

World War II created a difficult yet profitable situation for growers, packers, and canners. The mobilization of hundreds of thousands of soldiers, sailors, marines and support personnel generated a huge demand for canned goods around the world. At the same time, the absence of so many men (and some women) from the workforce created an acute labor shortage. The food processing industry had always relied on women and young people to work during harvest and production. The emergency of the war years brought even more “non-traditional” workers into the canneries.

City and county labor recruiters scoured every possible source of workers. The San Jose chapter of the American Women’s Voluntary Services (AWVS) personally telephoned housewives to entice them to cannery work. Ads in San Jose newspapers accused women of selfishness and laziness if they did not join the cannery workforce. Calpak’s office workers and managers worked on the cannery production lines to keep plants running at maximum capacity. Working women and men with regular full-time jobs were recruited to work a five-hour “Victory shift” from 6:30 to 11:30 p.m. during the height of the canning season. Santa Clara County schools superintendent Walter L. Backrodt encouraged high school students to continue working even past the opening of school. Students who missed classes were given individual assistance to make up the work. Enlisted soldiers and sailors were even assigned to work in the canneries to get the fruit canned and shipped to the United States government.

Calpak succeeded in maximizing wartime production and earned awards for exceeding government production goals. More than half of the Santa Clara Valley’s war-time pack was purchased by the United States government. Many soldiers and sailors reported their excitement on the rare occasions when canned fruit was available on the front lines. Calpak workers were particularly proud of their contributions to the war effort. Even on V-J Day – August 14, 1945, during the height of peach season – 85% of workers at Del Monte reported to Plant #3 for their shifts.

Mechanization of the Assembly Line

Throughout the 20th century, the California Packing Corporation was an industry leader in fruit and vegetable processing. Calpak followed the example set by the automobile and other industries in streamlining production through the use of assembly lines. Calpak’s engineers and scientists worked to mechanize almost every step of the process. But there were always tasks which could only be successfully performed by people. Calpak plant workers worked as closely with machines as they did with each other.

In the first decades of the 20th century, much of the cannery’s food preparation work – peeling, pitting, cutting and slicing – was done by hand. These tasks, closely associated with the domestic work of the home kitchen, were reserved for women. Assembly lines allowed workers to stand or sit in place and have the product brought to them on conveyor belts, rather than produce being hand-carried from station to station. Women worked on the line pitting, slicing and sorting the fruit as it came by. They were paid individually by the piece or amount they processed.

Through the 1930’s and 1940’s women’s hand-work was steadily replaced by mechanical solutions, especially for cutting and pitting. By the end of the 1950’s, practically all steps of the production process were mechanized, including cooking, peeling, and filling jars and cans. Only sorting and quality control continued to be done by hand. Women on the cannery line had transitioned from prep cooks to machine operators. Operators often felt harried or exhausted trying to keep pace with a machine that never got tired. They also had less contact with co-workers, since they were no longer working around a communal table or across from someone on the line. Mechanization forced all workers to become “cogs” in the assembly line machinery.

Secondary Products

In its tireless efforts to maximize efficiency and profit, Calpak developed ways to make use of the by-products from canning. Plant #153 was the pit-cracking plant, where discarded pits from stone fruits were broken down to be used as charcoal and fertilizer. Plant #54 was the by-products plant. Surplus juice from the canned fruits was recycled into canned fruit juice or nectar. Waste and by-products were also made into cosmetics, soap, oil, and other products. Even the boxes that brought the fruit to the plant were recycled into other materials and uses.

The Mystery of Fruit Cocktail

Fruit cocktail has been a staple of the canned fruit industry since at least the 1940s. The combination of pears, grapes, peaches, pineapple, syrup and bright red cherry halves was one of the most popular products Del Monte Plant #3 produced. It is generally agreed that fruit cocktail was developed as a way make use of the fruit scraps left when bruised or damaged fruits could not be used in canning. But the exact origin of fruit cocktail remains a mystery.

Canner J.C. Ainsley of Campbell (California) began marketing a product called “fruit salad” in 1893, under the “Golden Morn” label. According to the Campbell Historical Museum, the fruit salad contained cherries as well as diced fruits. But the product was never called fruit cocktail. In 1958, an article titled “100 Years of Canning in the West” in the journal Canner and Packer credited Herbert Gray of San Jose’s Barron-Gray Packing Company with invention of fruit cocktail in 1930. Gray himself affirmed this claim in an interview with the San Jose Mercury News in 1969. The academic field of Food Science gives credit for fruit cocktail to Dr. William V. Cruess, a pioneer in the field and professor at UC Berkeley from 1911 until 1954. Dr. Cruess’ research focused on the use of fruit culls and by-products. And some Plant #3 workers claim that fruit cocktail was invented right in the plant on Auzerais Avenue.

However it came to be, Calpak’s “new” Fruit Cocktail premiered under the Del Monte name in 1938. Consumers were introduced to fruit cocktail as a stylish dessert suitable for formal dinner parties and entertaining. Plant #3 produced fruit cocktail continuously from 1941 until the plant’s closure in 1999.

Unions

The drive to unionize the canning and packing industry began in the 1930s. Prior to 1935, fruit processing and canning – being seasonal and paid by piece-rate – was considered part of the agricultural process, and was thus excluded from worker protections and collective bargaining. But as cannery work became more mechanized, it was re-classified as industrial work and therefore subject to the 1935 National Labor Relations Act.

Unionization among seasonal employees is always difficult, and union drives at Calpak were no different. California Processors and Growers, the umbrella organization for packing houses in California (including Calpak), signed an agreement with the American Federation of Labor in 1937. Daily and weekly hour limits were set, and pay rates assigned for various jobs, which were different for men and women. With support of the AFL, unemployment benefits were extended to seasonal workers in 1939. The AFL represented most cannery workers in the Valley and was not hesitant to threaten strikes. But most work stoppages were avoided or were very brief, sometimes just a few hours. Calpak couldn’t afford for plants to be idle and therefore usually gave in to labor demands. Likewise, workers who were only employed for a few months out of the year could not afford to be on strike and lose valuable wages.

Beginning in the late 1930s, the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing, and Allied Workers of America [UCAPAWA] attacked the AFL as a company union, working for the benefit of corporations rather than workers. UCAPAWA, an affiliate of the Congress of Industrial Organizations [CIO], worked tirelessly to organize workers in all sectors of the agricultural industry, including canneries. Their aggressively grassroots approach promoted and supported worker-leaders within each cannery. The UCAPAWA was also considered by many to be Communist-infiltrated, if not Communist-run. In the canneries, including Plant #3, the UCAPAWA failed to unseat the AFL locals.

In 1945, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters [IBT] organized the warehouse workers and transport workers who brought produce to the canneries and shipped goods from the canneries to market. Not willing to share power with any other union, the Teamsters threatened to boycott canneries who continued to recognize AFL representation. Calpak and the other processors could not afford to have their products sit in the warehouse. So the corporations gave in to Teamster demands and recognized the Teamsters as the authorized union to represent all cannery workers. IBT proceeded to ignore the seasonal workforce and its needs, and continue the existing discrimination in hiring and promotion.

Labor

During the height of the canning seasons, Plant #3 operated around the clock to process all of the produce as quickly as possible. Company officers and managers keenly felt the pressure to keep the plant running at all costs.

“I waited in line every single day for a whole month. To, you know, to get a job. Because at that time, there were a lot of people who wanted to work in the canneries… I didn’t get a job until August when they started the cocktail.”

Plant #3 worker Mary Lou Reyes

Getting hired at Plant #3 required a combination of timing, connections and good luck. Seasonal workers were hired separately for the different packing seasons. A worker hired for the spinach season might or might not be re-hired to work peaches or fruit cocktail. But seasonal workers with a proven employment record were almost always hired back season after season. When the cannery needed more workers, managers selected from the queue of potential employees waiting outside the cannery. They were more inclined to hire people who were referred by a friend or family member. Prospective employees quickly learned to lie about their age, marital status, or family responsibilities if necessary to be chosen. Many full-time workers were also referred to Calpak by family members or friends who worked there.

The Progressive reform movement of the 1910s drew attention to abusive labor practices in all industries. In 1916 the California Industrial Welfare Commission regulated piece-rates and some working conditions, including lighting and restrooms. The maximum number of work hours was set at ten hours a day and sixty per week. However, compliance was voluntary and processors were unlikely to comply with hour regulations during the packing season. Starting in 1937, union agreements regulated hours, wages and seniority. With working hours set at 9 hour shifts, the cannery typically operated three shifts during the harvest, so that the factory ran around the clock. During each shift, workers received two short breaks and a lunch break. Workers were also allowed restroom breaks as needed. During non-peak months, the plant operated only one day shift.

Labor: Gender

While women transitioned from hand-work to machine operation between 1920 and 1966, the basic division of labor along gendered lines did not change. Women worked with machines but were still doing the “domestic tasks” of the cannery. They also continued to be the preferred seasonal labor force. Women earned less, worked fewer hours and had few opportunities for promotion, even though their work on the line was not substantially different from work done by men on labeling machines, packaging machines, or in the warehouse. Women and men also rarely worked together; work spaces in Plant #3 were segregated by tasks, creating an overall separation of men and women.

New women entering this workforce did have the advantage of joining a generally welcoming group. Women were often referred to the work by relatives, and most knew at least one person on the job when they started. This was a great benefit when it came to training, since supervisors didn’t offer formalized training. Jobs on the line were learned basically by doing and it helped to have a friend or relative as an instructor.

Women on the line were supervised by forewomen, also called “floor ladies.” Forewomen supervised between 35 and 45 workers, usually along one production line, such as peaches or fruit cocktail. The forewomen were constantly on the move on the shop floor, enforcing rules, instructing workers, and pushing for faster and more accurate work. Some were strict and forbade talking on the line. Others were sociable and friendly to their workers. Most importantly, forewomen had complete discretion in assigning workers to workstations. They also swapped workers or sent workers to other lines that needed more help. Some forewomen were accused of favoring their own family, friends, or ethnic group in assignments. Relations between forewomen and their workers could be especially strained if they were of different ethnic backgrounds or spoke different languages.

Despite the strained relations between line workers and supervisors, many line workers aspired to the position. The work involved a measure of independence, freedom of movement, increased responsibility, better pay and the opportunity to interact with a large number of workers.

Labor: Ethnicity

The ethnic make-up of the Plant #3 labor force reflected the ethnic diversity of San Jose as a whole. During the 1910s, immigrants from southern Europe arrived in the Valley in great numbers to work in the booming agricultural industry. In 1920, almost 50% of the city’s cannery workforce was foreign born, with the bulk from Italy and Portugal. By the 1930s, these immigrants and their descendants held responsible positions in canneries throughout the Valley; Mario Bonicelli managed Plants #3 and 4 in the 1930s.

Plant managers preferred that female cannery workers be supervised by members of their own ethnic group. Managers relied on forewomen to communicate with seasonal female employees who often could not speak English. In the 1930s and 1940s, Italian-American and Portuguese-American women often were promoted to the position of forewoman.

The 1930s brought a distinct type of ethnic conflict to the canneries, as “native Californians” competed with “non-natives” for precious seasonal employment. “Native Californians” were those who had lived in California since before the Depression, even if they were immigrants from Italy or Portugal. “Non-natives” included Dust Bowl migrants (even if they were white and English speaking), African-Americans and Mexican citizens.

Though Mexican-Americans have always had a strong presence in the Valley, they did not become dominant in the cannery workforce until after World War II. In the 1950s and 1960s, the cannery workforce transitioned from ethnically southern European to ethnically Mexican and Latin American. Mexican-American workers keenly felt discrimination during this transition. Italian-American and Portuguese-American forewomen did not speak the same language as their workers or share extended social connections of family and church. Spanish-speaking workers were unable to report grievances or learn about promotion opportunities. But as the Italian- and Portuguese-Americans retired, Mexican-Americans were promoted to supervisory jobs.

“We worked until September because I remember the sixteenth of September… what Mexicans celebrate.. And God the floor ladies were all wild over there because the sixteenth of September would come and they would miss a lot of people because they would all go to the dances.”

Plant #3 worker Carmen Villareal
Labor: Safety

Safety was a prime issue in the heavily mechanized maze of Del Monte Plant #3. As larger and ever more powerful machines were installed, workers were exposed to more and more industrial hazards. Workers were expected to learn on the job, and quickly, with only minimal instruction in workplace safety. Mechanization required that workers keep up with the machine, even when they were fatigued or distracted. With the machines constantly running, workers who slowed down or whose attention wandered could be seriously injured. As Del Monte employee Guadalupe Gonzalez said, “All of the machine work is very dangerous. You have to be very alert.”

“When I would go to bed I would hear the clanging and clanging of the cans until I fell asleep, because it was so loud there.”

Plant #3 Worker Angela Jones

Many women on the line reported severe damage to their hands; not so much from traumatic injuries but from the small everyday nicks and cuts associated with cutting fruit by hand. Women canning spinach suffered burnt hands and rotting fingernails because spinach was canned while it was still hot from cooking. One major hazard was catching fingers and hands in the processing machine. This happened to young Tony Paradiso, just a few months after he began working at Del Monte at the age of 17, in 1949.

The floors of Plant #3 were almost always wet during canning season, creating a very hazardous environment. Fruit was washed and sprayed, steam was the main cooking method, and machines were hosed down after each shift. Plant #3 was eventually equipped with grating and a drainage system to draw water, fruit juice and other liquids off the manufacturing floor. Noise was also a safety problem. In a building the size of four football fields, with machines running and cans rattling along conveyors, the noise was intense. And the workplace got louder every time a new machine was added.

Del Monte Plant #3 had a nurse available during all shifts. The nurse could provide first aid and advise when a worker should be sent to a doctor or hospital. The nurse might also tell a worker go home to recuperate. Some seasonal workers ignored advice to stay home since it deprived them of essential income.

“Sometimes we used to get cut even if we had gloves. Just by going like that you know a little cut… Sometimes our apron would get caught in the machine too. Because it got caught on mine.”

Plant #3 Worker Elida Gutierrez
Piece Rate

Women doing handwork on the assembly line were paid based on the amount of fruit or vegetables – by weight or volume – which they processed. Placement at the start of the line gave an employee the best opportunity to process fruit quickly, while those at the end of the line might see only a few pieces of fruit. Workers who wanted to earn more fought for “a good spot on the line.” Workers who wanted to slow down or take a little break could do so – if they were comfortable earning less and if it did not bother their supervisor.

Piece-rate tasks that became mechanized – like slicing and pitting – were still paid by the piece whenever possible. But women had less control over piece rate pay working on machines, because they could not control the speed of the machine. Some women devised ways to cheat the counting and weighing machines to increase their pay.

1967-1999

The high quality products produced at canneries like Plant #3 earned the name Del Monte an outstanding reputation. In 1967, the California Packing Corporation adopted Del Monte as its corporate name. By the 1980s, however, it was clear that Plant #3’s days were numbered. Orchards were gradually replaced with housing and office complexes. Less and less local produce arrived for processing at Plant #3. Even as the Valley’s agriculture faded, workers at Del Monte Plant #3 continued production, and continued to build friendships and loyalty to the company and to one another. When it closed in 1999, Del Monte Plant #3 was the last major canning operation in what was by then called “Silicon Valley.”

Del Monte Plant #3

In its last 40 years of production, Del Monte Plant #3 grew to include more storage facilities and more modern equipment. The conveyor across Auzerais Avenue, a local landmark, was built in the 1960s to connect the main plant with two new storage warehouses (#29 and #30). As fruit agriculture left the Santa Clara Valley for the Central Valley and other regions, it was necessary to store more produce for longer periods of time. The pedestrian bridge and the can conveyor allowed easy access between the sites.

Continued Mechanization

The post-World War II boom in the Santa Clara Valley was founded on technological innovation. Del Monte was a leader in applying new technologies in its canneries and production lines. During the 1960s and 1970s, cannery machines became more efficient and less reliant on individual workers. Seasonal cannery workers – still mostly women – were skilled machine operators.

Shipping and inventory operations were computerized. Eventually, even the difficult work of sorting small pieces of fruit would be handed over to a massive computer-controlled machine, which ran on the technologies invented in Silicon Valley.

Labor

Throughout the later twentieth century, Del Monte Plant #3 continued to supply regular employment for men and women in the Santa Clara Valley. Seasonal jobs on the production line adhered to the traditional schedule. Seasonal jobs were also still typically filled by women, until affirmative action and societal changes started to have an impact on the plant in the 1970s. Over these years, the ethnic makeup of the production workforce shifted to become predominantly Mexican-American. And the workforce became somewhat older, as long-time Del Monte employees stayed on and were promoted to positions of responsibility in the plant.

Production and warehouse workers felt a strong commitment to each other and pride in working at Del Monte. The cafeteria was a thriving space where line employees shared food and gossip, celebrated birthdays, and enjoyed time away from the plant’s mechanical maze. Even after the plant closure, close friends and co-workers known as the “Del Monte Club” continue to meet regularly for lunch.

Labor: Gender

During the 1960s and early 1970s, work at Del Monte continued to be segregated by gender. The International Brotherhood of Teamsters, which represented production, assembly and warehouse employees, codified the division of year-round, mechanical jobs for men and seasonal, production jobs for women. At the same time, IBT’s procedural rules prevented seasonal workers from voting or becoming union representatives, locking women out of the collective bargaining process which might change the inequities.

Cannery culture also dissuaded women from trying to improve their individual situations. Though they often operated complicated machinery on the production line, women with considerable seniority who asked to be trained in year-round tasks were often refused. When allowed to move to a new job, they might be given inadequate training, and then reported as failing in their duties.

This gendered division of labor would slowly start to change at the canneries during the 1970s and 1980s. In 1976, canneries were required by court order to redress the barriers to advancement in position and pay for seasonal workers, i.e. women and minority workers. The affirmative action program did result in the placement of female long-time seasonal workers in year-round jobs that had traditionally been held by men.

Many of the female oral history respondents began their careers as seasonal production workers. When their children grew up and moved away from home, these women began taking full-time, year-round jobs. Jobs in the warehouse or in the office often took them into what had previously been all-male territory. None of these women considered their move into full time work part of the feminist revolution in the workplace, but as the natural progression of their working lives. With no children at home, they were able to work full-time year-round. They needed the extra income and recognized the advantage of increasing their retirement benefits through full-time work. Guadalupe Gonzalez pushed for full-time work in the 1990’s, “[b]ecause… we knew that they were going to close down and I needed to have something in my insurance.” Many women reported that they also liked these jobs better, as they were more independent and had more responsibilities.

“When I went to work… in the warehouse, for me it was like a relief, you know. It was, I got a better job, [an] easy job.”

Plant #3 employee Mary Lou Reyes
Labor: Ethnicity

In the last 40 years of Plant #3’s history, the production workforce gradually became dominated by Mexican-Americans and immigrants from Central and South America. Administrative and white collar jobs were still more often held by white Americans, mostly men. But even within the production workforce, ethnic divides persisted. Worker networks were usually composed only of members of the same gender and ethnic group. Some cannery workers identified the rift between “Chicanos” – Mexican-Americans who were born in the United States – and “Mexicans” – direct immigrants from Mexico. Native-born Californians of Mexican descent often resented competition for jobs from Mexicans who migrated seasonally. The two groups competed for the same jobs and did not see themselves as natural allies. Despite their common language, the use of regional idioms and colloquialisms kept the groups separate.

Throughout the history of Plant #3, workers who were bilingual in English and the language of the production workforce had more access to promotions and pay increases. In the 1970’s and 1980’s, this situation tended to benefit native-born Californians of Mexican descent. These workers were valued for their ability to communicate between managerial staff and Spanish-speaking assembly line workers.

Labor: Safety

Between 1967 and 1999, safety was a major concern at Del Monte Plant #3, as work safety regulations became more stringent and union pressure more intense. In these years, canneries in general were more dangerous than other work sites. Many injuries were related to the chemicals used for cleaning machines and processing fruits, which could cause nausea or skin problems when spilled. These liquids, combined with water and fruit juice, made floors in the cannery especially dangerous. Increased mechanization brought more hazards into the workplace in the form of belts, engines, cutting machinery, and noise.

Fortunately, at the same time, workplace safety became a serious concern of the state and federal governments. New safety regulations required the placement of slip-proof floor mats, signs to warn of potential hazards, and safety gear provided by the company. Del Monte supplied its workers with hard hats, rubber aprons and gloves, and earplugs. Hard hats were especially important to protect workers from cans that might fall from the system of overhead conveyors.

A few employees did suffer major traumatic injuries. These were most often caused by mishaps with machines and hands. Working on the quick production machines was no easy task and required constant attention.

Unions

Between 1950 and 1999, the International Brotherhood of Teamsters [IBT or Teamsters] represented all assembly, production and warehouse workers at Plant #3. There was at least one union representative on each shift to respond to employee concerns. However, many workers felt that the union did not represent them well and did very little to improve conditions in the plant. The IBT tended to negotiate with Del Monte officials behind closed doors, making deals without soliciting the opinion of the workers.

The IBT generally ignored the seasonal, largely female, Spanish-speaking workforce that made up the bulk of Del Monte employees during the production season. The union’s procedural rules excluded seasonal workers from voting in union elections or running for union offices. Union representatives often did not speak Spanish. Union literature and ballots were printed only in English, preventing even year-round Spanish-speaking employees from participating in union activities.

In 1969, concerned cannery workers formed the Mexican-American Workers Educational Committee, later known as the Comite de Trabajadores de Canería, or Cannery Workers Committee [CWC]. The regional CWC movement fought against the race and sex discrimination practiced by both the Del Monte Corporation and the IBT. Activist Lucio Bernabé led the group’s initial efforts to help Spanish-speaking workers become full participants in the IBT local. The CWC published union materials in Spanish and taught workers how to vote in union elections. This effort was largely unsuccessful and prompted the opening of the Cannery Workers Service Center in 1978. The center provided a multitude of services to Spanish-speaking workers, including bilingual shop steward training, a newsletter, and medical service referrals.

As the agricultural industry in the Valley slowly declined, the IBT did little to protect the workers at Plant #3. The union seemed satisfied with keeping workers employed, even if it meant severe pay cuts and pension consequences. As mechanization replaced workers on more and more tasks, the union allowed senior workers to be “bumped down” to lower and lower pay scales.

Decline of Industry

Throughout the 1960s, 1970s, and 1980s, the landscape of the Santa Clara Valley experienced a dramatic transformation. Orchards were steadily replaced by business and research parks and housing developments. The agricultural industry gave way to the high technology enterprises that earned Silicon Valley its name. In the 1960s and 1970s, the valley lost over 50,000 acres of fruit and nut trees, most of it to the Central Valley and other regions of California.

Del Monte initially responded to the changing landscape by building more storage facilities at Plant #3, to house product which was being transported from further and further away. But transporting product over great distances cost more and could negatively impact quality. High technology industries, especially semiconductor manufacturing, offered competitive year-round assembly-line jobs, cutting into Del Monte’s labor supply. For years, canneries had dumped their waste water directly into the San Francisco Bay, but the burgeoning conservation movement of the 1960’s brought that to an end. Clean water legislation required canners to invest in new waste treatment facilities. Construction and maintenance of these facilities put another significant dent in profits.

Del Monte Plant #3 was one of the very last full-scale canneries to operate in San José. Del Monte Corporation continued production at the plant for almost a dozen years after the turnover to Silicon Valley was complete. The corporation even invested in new machinery at the plant just 6 months before it closed.

In December 1999 the last cans rolled off the Plant #3 assembly line. The entire Plant #3 production was moved to a new plant in Modesto. Employees were offered the opportunity to move with the plant. Some took it and moved to the Central Valley; others chose to retire or leave the industry. Some employees reported that they would have lost valuable seniority or pay bracket status had they moved to the Modesto plant. For many of the workers, the plant’s closure signaled the closure of their working lives and the end of strong, enduring working relationships. The huge plant, warehouses and other buildings on Auzerais stood vacant for seven years.

“It makes me sad. I went by with my granddaughter and I go what are they doing? They’re knocking out my cannery! It was mine. And she goes ‘Oh yeah grandma like it’s yours.’ Well yeah, all my life it was here and they just knock it down.”

Plant #3 worker, Elida Gutierrez

The Monte Vista Community

In the 1990s, the city of San Jose embarked on a plan to revitalize the downtown core, which had long been neglected while others neighborhoods thrived. Plans for the downtown core were spelled out in the 2020 General Plan. The area west and south of downtown, around San Carlos Street, was targeted for higher-density housing projects of 25 or more dwelling units per acre. KB Homes developed the Monte Vista community at the former Plant #3 site to provide a mix of single-family detached townhomes and multi-story condominium buildings. By bringing more residents closer to the downtown core, the project fulfilled many of the objectives of the city’s General Plan. The community includes a park and a stop on the VTA Light Rail system.

It has also retained some of Plant #3’s exterior walls with geometric diamond patterns, a feature of the warehouses’ Streamline Moderne style. The distinctive Del Monte water tower also remains.

Canned Topics

The Corporation

The Del Monte Corporation traces its history back to the earliest days of the fruit processing industry. The Corporation grew out of a long series of mergers and consolidation starting in 1889 and continuing into the 1980s. The San Jose Fruit Packing Company, founded in 1875, was one of Del Monte’s ancestors. San Jose Fruit Packing joined forces with 17 other small companies in 1889 to form the California Fruit Canners Association. This association joined others in 1916 as part of the California Packing Corporation [Calpak] , headquartered in San Francisco. By the 1920s, Calpak had a national presence and a famous brand – Del Monte. After World War II, the brand became recognized around the world and the corporation took Del Monte as its name in 1967. In 1979, the company became part of R.J. Reynolds Industries, but retained its name and brand identity. Del Monte’s presence in the Santa Clara Valley ended in 1999, when Plant #3 closed. But the brand and the name, built on the high quality of Santa Clara Valley agricultural products, continue to thrive.

Del Monte Brand

The Del Monte Brand first appeared in 1886, the property of Tillman & Bendel, an Oakland-based firm which used it for a blend of coffee prepared for the luxury Hotel Del Monte in Monterey, California. It was later used by the Oakland Preserving Company, which became part of the California Fruit Canners Association in 1899. The CFCA chose Del Monte as its featured premium brand within just a few years. The company also marketed no fewer than 75 other brands. But it was quickly apparent that consumers associated the name Del Monte with a high-quality product.

Upon its creation in 1916, the California Packing Corporation (Calpak) adopted the Del Monte brand as the premium label for the new corporation. Calpak’s founders and board members strongly believed that consumers would become loyal to the Del Monte brand so long as its high quality was assured. The first national advertising campaign featuring Del Monte was launched in April 1917. Full color ads in national magazines like Good Housekeeping and the Saturday Evening Post emphasized high quality, good taste and good nutrition.

Calpak’s first fifty years of operations attested to the success of this strategy – Del Monte became a household name and preferred brand. Even when consumers knew they were eating the same peaches, they expressed a preference to buy the can with the Del Monte label over a generic one. In 1967, Calpak changed its name to the Del Monte Corporation, a title it has held through further mergers and acquisitions. Del Monte has in many ways set the standard for the development of brand identity and brand consciousness.

Labor Through the Years

Work in the canning industry throughout the twentieth century was characterized by two major considerations: the gendered division of labor and the seniority system for work assignments and promotions.

The California Packing Corporation, like almost all its contemporaries in industrial production, rigidly defined jobs for men and jobs for women. Men were assigned to do the heavy lifting, including work in the warehouse, inventory, delivering produce to the canning lines, and monitoring the labeling machines. Much of this work was staggered to supply a steady stream of product leaving the cannery year-round, so it was not dependent on the seasons. These job assignments rested on the assumptions that 1) only men were capable of the physical labor required and 2) men needed full-time year-round work to support their families.

Women were assigned to the food preparation tasks on the production line, including peeling, cutting, sorting and can filling. These jobs were in many ways reflective of the domestic work women did in their own kitchens. This work was also entirely seasonal. Job assignments rested on the assumptions that 1) women were especially capable in food preparation because of their experience in the home, and 2) women were working only to earn “a little extra” and so did not need year-round employment. The production lines were also supervised by women, called “floorladies” or forewomen. This pattern persisted even after most of the food preparation tasks were mechanized. In the last twenty years of its history, Plant #3 did experience a relaxation of these gender boundaries, with more women moving into full-time, year-round work in all areas of the cannery.

The separation between women workers, who worked seasonally, and men workers, who worked year-round, was reinforced by the plant’s seniority system. Seniority was intended to reward long-time employees with steady work, promotions and pay increases. Seniority at Del Monte was difficult to figure because so many people worked for only 4-6 months out of the year. For seasonal workers, seniority meant a job each season, though it did not guarantee a specific job. Seniority often meant getting the day shift instead of evening or swing. Some seasonal workers felt that seniority should decide who got the best spots on the assembly line. But more often discretion in job placement was left entirely to the floor ladies and supervisors. Full-time, year-round workers had the advantage in seniority. If a year-round worker with seniority was without a job, that worker was entitled to any job on the line, even if it displaced a seasonal worker who had been in the same job for several years. The system also favored year-round workers in pay scales.

“I would try to work the whole season but then my, my number was very low so I would be bumped, as they say. One lady came up and told my mom that there was a little Portuguese girl on the line and she wanted my job, and that was the way it worked because she had a higher number. In other words she worked there more years than I did.”

Plant #3 worker, Angela Jones

Production

The fundamental process of canning fruit changed little from its inception in the 1870s to the closing of Del Monte Plant #3 in 1999. The means of production, however, did change dramatically during the 20th century. The assembly line was introduced in the 1910s and mechanization eventually replaced handwork in almost every area.

Fresh fruit and vegetables for canning were delivered to the cannery via rail or truck. Pears were stored in the pear shed to continuing ripening for 5 – 10 days. Other fruits, such as apricots, peaches and tomatoes, and most vegetables had to be canned almost immediately. During the harvest season, the canning lines operated virtually 24-hours per day.

Most fruit was put through a steam bath to remove the skin. In the early days, skinned fruit was pitted and cut by hand as it moved along a conveyor belt and bad fruit was sorted out by hand. By 1999, most of these tasks were automated, with the exception of some of the quality control, which was still done by hand. Once pitted and cut, the fruit was put into cans or jars, then juice or sugared water was added, and the can was sealed. The filling of cans was done by hand for many years before those steps were mechanized. Cans were weighed individually and checked by a quality control worker to confirm the correct weight. The cans then traveled into the cook room, where they were cooked to preserve the fruit and secure against contamination.

Most vegetables were peeled and sliced, then cooked using steam heat. The cooked vegetables were then packed into cans and the cans were sealed. Unlike fruit, vegetables were often hot when they came to the filling stations. Many workers reported the discomfort and danger of packing hot vegetables, especially spinach.

Filled cans then proceeded to be labeled and stacked in the warehouse. During the peak of harvests, the cans would be stacked without labels, so that label operators could move to the canning lines. Unmarked cans could easily be labeled in the “down time” between harvests or in the winter.

The entire output of the cannery for the season was called the pack. For example, canneries reported the size of the pack for individual products, like peaches or pears. They also reported their total pack of all products for the year. In quantifying the Santa Clara Valley’s dominance in fruit and vegetable canning, business leaders referred to the Valley’s percentage of the state or national pack.

“You know it was, you had to use every ounce of your body, muscle and you’re just processing and knowing that. I got so proud because the fruit that I was doing, the work that I was doing I thought, gee, ‘My name, my friends are going to get a can and that could be the can that I processed, or that I seamed.’”

Plant #3 worker, Angela Jones

Seasonal Work

The canning industry, by its very nature, requires the employment of a flexible workforce which grows and shrinks with the fruit and vegetable harvest seasons. When the harvests of spinach, pears, peaches, or apricots came in, they had to be processed immediately to insure high quality. When no vegetables and fruits were ripening – from November until mid-March – there was almost nothing to do at the cannery. There were also downtimes in May and June, after the spinach was canned but before peaches were in. During each canning season, the plant operated around the clock, with three shifts of workers per day. Seasonal workers had to maximize their income while the jobs were available, so most made sure to be at work every single day they could. This might mean coming to work sick, staying at work even after an injury, or leaving children unsupervised. Some migrant workers picked in the fields in the early part of the season and transitioned to the cannery when the lines started running. In 1937, seasonal workers gained unemployment benefits, giving them a measure of financial stability through the winter months.

“Sometimes we worked right straight through the whole week. During apricot season we didn’t get any days off because you know it was right there and they didn’t want to waste it.”

Plant #3 worker, Nina Flores

Working Moms

Work at Del Monte presented special opportunities and challenges for mothers who wanted or needed to work. Most of the Del Monte Plant #3 oral history respondents were working mothers who chose seasonal work at Del Monte because it fit into their family commitments.

Like all working mothers, women working in the cannery faced the challenge of finding appropriate and affordable child care. Calpak did at times operate a nursery at the Plant #3 site. The nursery provided basic child care during the day shift and the second shift. But by the 1960’s, this service was no longer offered. Some women left their children with family members or neighbors; others paid for babysitters. When female workers got desperate, they might leave their children sleeping at home while they worked the night shift. There were even reports of children sleeping in cars at canneries while their mothers worked. For many years, Calpak forbade pregnant women from working.

Many women worked out complicated shift arrangements with their husbands. The husband might work the day shift at his employer and the wife the night shift or swing shift at the cannery. During the day, the wife slept a bit, did chores and prepared food. The family ate dinner together, then the wife went off to work and the husband put the kids to bed. When the wife returned home around dawn, she was just in time to fix breakfast for her husband and children. Such arrangements were exhausting but women workers struggled through, knowing the great contribution their paychecks made to the family finances.

“Of course I was [tired], but I mean you have to do this and you have to do that. You know you’re a mother, a caregiver, but my husband was very helpful too.”

Plant #3 worker, Nina Flores

In many cases, women workers reported that the money they earned at the cannery supplemented the family budget, allowing for a few more luxuries in the household. Some spent their paychecks on better school clothes, books and supplies for their kids. Some saved up for a new washer or other household convenience. And many reported that they were able to buy homes because of the money they earned in the cannery. Long-time Del Monte Plant #3 employee Mary Lou Reyes said, “I’m very grateful to Del Monte, because of my work at Del Monte, I bought [my] house and I was able to help my husband to send my kids to college.”

In Their Own Words

To document what it was like to work at Del Monte Plant #3, History San José worked with Community Heritage Partner to record oral histories of people who worked there. In January 2006, five former Del Monte employees were interviewed at Plant #3 before it was demolished later that year. Nine additional oral histories were conducted at former employees’ homes. The interviews can be viewed on the Internet Archive using the links below. (A complete set of oral history videos and transcripts are available at the History San José Research Library, as well as the Dr. Martin Luther King Jr., Biblioteca Latinoamericana, and Rose Garden branches of the San Jose Public Library).