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: Gender

Velma Lucille Bernal, 1920.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.

Carmen Villareal and her sister Grace, 1945.  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.