Four tomato cannery workers who participated in the June 2017 strike at San Benito Foods and then were fired in July are taking their cases to arbitration next month.
“The company never gave us a chance to explain why we got fired,” said Raymundo Fregoso, one of the terminated employees, who worked at the cannery for 17 years. “I still don’t know the reason why they fired us.”
Fregoso, Esteban Guillen, Daniel Miranda and Arturo Macias Jr., said they were suspended when the eight-day strike ended July 1.
The cannery employs 100 full-time workers year-round and 450 seasonal workers during the busy processing season that runs from July through September.
Jose Perez, a representative for Teamsters Local 890 which represents San Benito Foods employees, said he was made aware of the suspensions immediately after the strike ended.
“I got a call from the guys telling me they were put on suspension pending investigation,” Perez said by phone Monday. “A couple days later they were terminated for striker misconduct.”
The terminations aren’t going unchallenged, with the union and former cannery employees set to go into arbitration with San Benito Foods on Dec. 6.
“We’re fighting it, we’re definitely against it,” Perez said. “We wouldn’t be going to arbitration if we didn’t think we had a strong case. We’re 100 percent behind our members and it’s unfortunate that the company decided to take this route. We don’t believe they have sufficient evidence to support their allegations.”
The cannery strike started on June 23 after contract negotiations that began in January collapsed between Teamsters Local 890 and the San Benito Foods tomato cannery, owned by the Neil Jones Food Company. The strike ended eight days later on July 1.
Five days later, on July 6, Fregoso and the other three terminated employees received notices from the cannery that they would not be reinstated due to striker misconduct.
“They retaliated against us for asking for what the United States stands for: better quality and better treatment for better pay,” Fregoso said. “We have a right to say, ‘You’re doing us wrong and this has to stop.’ That’s why we all walked out. We were out there 12 to 13 hours a day for a week. We didn’t do it for fun, we did it for a purpose.”
It is unclear how San Benito Foods, and to a larger extent the Neil Jones Food Company, define striker misconduct.
Plant Manager Sam Humphrey wouldn’t respond to questions, but provided a company statement to the Free Lance on Wednesday morning.
“San Benito Foods is working collaboratively with the union to find a resolution,” Humphrey said. “For privacy reasons, we won’t be discussing employee matters.”
After the strike ended in July, Humphrey said that no workers were terminated. At the time, he was responding to rumors that workers had been fired for their roles in the strike.