During World War II, Latinas in San Francisco’s tortilla and tamale factories formed the “Tortilla Workers’ Union.” It was formally known Local 5-1 of the CIO’s United Cannery, Agricultural, and Packing Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA).
Conditions were bad.
“In some of the plants, notably the Mexicana, almost feudal relations have existed for many years, with the employer paying the employees in groceries, or with the employee working to pay off a continuing and growing debt to employer,” reported the union.
After organizing the plants, UCAPAWA used its goodwill with the Roosevelt administration to raise salaries during a period of wage and price controls.
The factories were located in a number of neighborhoods, suggesting that Latinos lived not only in the Mission District but in other areas as well.
In 1943, the Tortilla Workers joined with area cannery workers and the National Maritime Union to sponsor a fundraiser for the Sleepy Lagoon defendants.
Later that year, Local 5 merged into Local 7, an amalgamated cannery local based in Seattle that stretched from Alaska to Northern California.
The following year UCAPAWA changed its name to the Food, Tobacco, Agricultural and Allied Workers (FTA) to better reflect the membership.
FTA refused to sign the non-Communist affidavits required by the Taft-Hartly Act in 1947. It endorsed Henry Wallace for president in 1948. Wallace, Roosevelt’s vice president from 1941-1945, ran on the Progressive Party ticket against President Harry Truman. The union’s troubles grew after being expelled from the CIO for allegedly following the Communist Party line.
In 1952, after FTA dissolved, Local 7 became Local 37 of the International Longshore and Warehouse Union (ILWU).
Here are the names and addresses of the original nine employers:
- Castilian Grocery, 483 3rd Street
- Central Market, 429 9th Street
- Cunha’s Tamale Factory, 906 Webster Street
- La Esperanza, 1424 Powell Street
- La Fe, 1052 Folsom Street
- La Mexicana, 799 Broadway
- Mi Rancho Grocery, 3351 20th Street
- Sanchez Tamale & Tortilla Company, 1923 Fillmore Street
- Trio Tamale Company, 836 Harrison Street
Did you or anyone in your family work in one of these factories? Did a member of your extended family run one of these Latino-owned small businesses? Do you know someone who did?
The author is hoping to further develop this story. Please contact me if you have information or mementos like buttons, leaflets, or photos.