Cannery Life, Del Monte in the Santa Clara Valley

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Mission brand yellow cling peaches label

View a database that includes artifacts, photographs, and documents in the History San José collection which relate to Del Monte Plant #3 in San José, California.

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In Their Own Words

Beatrice and Friends

Learn about Del Monte Plant #3 from the people who worked there.  See videos of former Del Monte employees sharing their memories.

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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.  Men in a cannery, c1900.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.  Supervisors at Del Monte, c. 1970.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.  Bertha Lopez and Floorlady Rose Palomera in Del Monte Plant #3.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.