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Henry the Militant Falls in Love (first installment)
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(this is a story I’ve been working on. It’s about 5000 words. I plan to send it to you in five installments. I’m looking for feedback. Thanks! Larry

The first time I saw Daisy Bricino, she was in the Hawks Frozen Foods factory parking lot, talking to everyone who passed by.

“Jesus H,” she announced, “Can you believe that smell? It’s like the fart capitol of the world in there. It’s like being locked in a portapotty.” It turned out it was her first day on the job, and she was talking about the stink when we ran broccoli. It was like someone sticking their finger down your throat the whole shift. But when I passed by, she didn’t say anything. She just looked at me funny. At least I think she did. If she had said something, I would have told her that if she hated the broccoli smell, she should just wait until next month when the brussel sprouts came in.

She wore huge orange glasses. The next day her glasses were green; another day red and heart shaped. They seemed to pop out from under her hairnet like flowers.

I hated the smell of rotting broccoli and brussel sprouts also, but what really made me sick was the way they treated us at Hawk’s Frozen Foods. When I started they paid twenty five cents above minimum wage. Now we were up to a dollar above. It’s not that money is everything to me, but damnit if I work 40 to 50 hours a week, I expect to be able to pay my bills, which ain’t the case for me and the 400 or so others who work here.

Hawk always claimed he was broke, but the plant was right in the middle of the Salinas Valley, the vegetable capitol of the country, and ran 52 weeks a year, rain or shine. And if he was so broke, how did he manage to build that 500-acre hilltop ranch for himself?

Of course, I didn’t have to stay working at Hawk’s. Fifteen years ago when I came back home to the valley after the Navy, I was drinking every day, and in debt to everyone. I didn’t know my right from my left. Plus I’d gotten a girl pregnant. I needed to sober up and get my money halfway right, and Hawk’s fit the bill. Since then, I probably should have looked for other jobs. But I knew a lot of the workers from growing up here, and out of the 400, there was always someone to have a beer with or invite me over for barbeque or a kids birthday party. Where else would I find that?

So I stayed.

But that 75 cents over minimum wage, that gave me heartburn every damned day. All these people trying to raise families, and falling behind every year, while Hawk looked down over us like some duke in a Robin Hood movie.

After a few years we voted to bring in a union, Produce Workers Local 914. At that time I didn’t pay much attention to it, and then I learned that Chuck Peters was the union president. I’d gone to high school with him and he was without a doubt the biggest douche bag in the school. We were both on the wrestling team, and he was one of those guys who’d eat garlic before every match so his breath would stink and pinch you hard under the armpit when the coach wasn’t looking. A total sphincter.

The 914 leaders sold us out contract after contract. With Peters running the show I wasn’t surprised. Every time the contract expired, the union honchos and the company bigshots would check into the Monterey Beachfront Hilton for a few days of “negotiations” and then come out with the same contract with a few minor changes. Usually, we would get a one or two percent annual raise and a little more into the medical plan. And that’s how it went, contract after contract. . Just enough to keep us going. Going nowhere. After every negotiations, the company and union would put out a joint statement saying what a good agreement it was and how they “valued the relationship.” The contract always got ratified, but most members didn’t even bother to vote. Out of 400 members, we’d get votes like 55 to 12, the twelve being me and a few others who always voted no. Hawk and Peters had their hands in each other’s pocket. Whenever I passed by the succotash vat, I’d picture the two of them thrashing around together in the corn and the beans. Or buried in the compost pile, with just their heads sticking out.

During the workday, I always looked for Daisy. I’d catch glimpses of her between the moving conveyor belts of broccoli, artichokes, brussel sprouts, strawberries, or whatever else had been brought in from the fields that day. I just had to check out what color glasses she was wearing.

Six months later, something happened that changed everything. Our contract was open again, but this time Hawk came in with an attitude. He said the economy was bad, and if we didn’t take cuts in wages and benefits, he’d move the plant to Mexico, where workers made $5 a day and were happy to get it. He said his people were already in Mexico looking at sites.

We knew it was a bluff. The company was raking it in. Green Giant, Birdseye, Pictsweet we packaged for all the big brands. Plus, Hawk had just put in an organic section for Cascadian Farms, and they had to put on a swing shift to keep up with demand. Hawk was just being greedy. Now was the time for us to demand a real raise. At least 5% a year. Why not? We went to the union meeting and told Peters that Hawk was bluffing, and we should take them on. One of our members, Paul Esposito, had been a Teamster and got up and said a real union would be preparing for a strike. Sally Cardona, a former farmworker, said the United Farm Workers would never have let things get this bad. She got a standing ovation.

At the next meeting we voted 90% to strike. We told Peters and his buddies that if they did a half ass job, we would decertify the union. Peters about split a gut. He had no idea what to do, but we were in it now.

The members wanted Paul and Sally to be picket captains, but we needed three and someone suggested me. “Good idea,” said someone else. By that time, I’d worked pretty near every job in the plant, except for foreman, which I wouldn’t go near, and I guess the members trusted me.

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