UNION CITY, CALIFORNIA

Where else but Union City do events like today’s take place?

I heard about American Licorice workers being on strike through the Occupy grapevine: Twitter, late night text messages, phone calls and word-of-mouth at Occupy Oakland events but knew little of the specifics before I got on BART this morning. Union City, near the end of the Fremont line in the South Bay. All I knew was the workers were on strike and requested Occupy Oakland’s support.

After walking through the turnstile at the station, I spotted someone in an Oakland A’s hat who looked like a compatriot. He spotted me. “Where’s the shuttle?” I asked. “I’m it,” he replied. I didn’t know his name or recognize his face. We just knew. Too bad he’s not a Giants fan, I thought.

His name was J. and introduced himself as part of the Occupy Oakland Labor Solidarity Committee. He drove quickly from the parking lot to the factory via Whipple, a broad multilane artery that pulsed with the traffic of commerce and around the clock work. Semis whipped past next to a railroad. Residential housing gave way to low slung industrial buildings, glowing yellow under the arc-sodium lights.

He gave me the nickle version: Workers. Management. Private security. Been striking for over a month. They make Red Vines at the factory.

More lights in the distance. Red, blue. Flashing. Police. Cruisers. People picketing up and down the block. White signs bobbing on their shoulders, heads and hands covered in knit caps and gloves. It was cold out. J. pulled a U-turn and pulled into a parking lot a block away.

The picket looked strong. Hundreds of people I guessed, stretching along Whipple and around the corner to their mailbox at 2477 Liston Way (American Licorice’s phone number is 510-487-5500 if you want to call and confirm the address). Food, tables and chairs were set up. The workers on strike were members of Bakery Workers Union Local 125. They were mostly Latino. I spotted Occupy Oakland picketing the main entrance. It looked like the two groups were self-segregating.

Union City police were out in force. So were Hayward, Fremont and Newark police. A mutual aid agreement between the departments. Everything looked heavy but at least the riot gear wasn’t out.

Then, I saw them behind the main gate where the Oakland Occupiers were on a moving picket. Goons. Hired goons. Three of them, observing the picketers from behind the gate. The Huffmaster Security Crisis Team. Red Vines, which everyone eats at the movie theater (if anyone can still afford to go out) not only pull fillings out of your teeth but make factory bosses to pull out their checkbooks for present-day Pinkertons.

One of them was built like a brickhouse. He looked like a creation of Vince McMahon’s steroid-addled imagination. “Asshole #1,” one of the workers said, gesturing to him. “No name?” I asked. “Asshole #1. He shoves people.” Interesting.

One fellow in a Carhartt jacket told me that American Licorice was hiring scabs through a temp agency in Emeryville. They had Huffmaster ferry them in a white van. I heard the workers hadn’t tried to block the scabs up until that day.

So workers and occupiers blocked them.

The Huffmasters used a manuever where they put their hands on the hood of the vehicle and backed into the crowd. Someone sat down in front of the vehicle. There was nothing they could do, especially with dozens of cell cameras witnessing everything, live, versus Huffmaster’s one puny Sony Handicam without an Internet connection. The vehicle was repulsed. Back to the American Licorice lot, scab wagon.

A win. It’s happening. Now.

Again, with another vehicle, a Sentra with a Huffmaster logo on the dash, trying to get in. Some goon squad middle manager. Sit down in front of the car. Asshole #1 is clearly the ringleader on the ground of this union-busting wrecking crew. He looks like ex-military, which Huffmaster brags about hiring on their website. He cracks a bit. His latern jaw twitches as he tries to back into the crowd. How about no? We rejected the last vehicle and we reject this one, too.

Blood is in the water now. I think of Rocky being told whatever Goliath he was in the ring with is just a man who can bleed like everyone else. The workers and occupiers cheer and clap. Hoots. Blasts of finger whistling.

It’s working. The energy swings to our side. The unseen barrier between Occupy Oakland and Local 125 and their sympathizers melts away. We start talking to each other in Spanish, in English. We share food, coffee and exchange phone numbers. We start playing run and gun, covering gates to block vehicles as needed.

Huffmaster and the management resorts to a full court press. The only time it fails is when Union City cops stroll over after Huffmaster or the management get fed up with our blockade and tell the picket that they have to clear the public sidewalk to let a vehicle through. The cops look like they’re more interested in hanging out and chatting by the corner. Or going out and fighting real, actual crime.

The empty scab wagon driven by another Andre the Giant-esque Huffmaster goon flees to the police staging area by Public Storage across the street. Any port in a storm, right? But the Huffmasters don’t have a posse. They’re not actually 7’4″, 320 lbs. We have the numbers. We have the morale. We have the people on our side, who constantly blow loud air horns from trucks and extend solidarity fists from car windows. Someone says to Asshole #1 they’re not honking for them. He looks away from behind his shades. He sulks behind the fence. He puffs away on a cigarette like the Marlboro Man in a Huffmaster uniform with brown stains on the back of his shirt.

What looks like a blacked out tank appears on the corner. It’s a Union City Police Department armored truck that Anonymous on Twitter informs everyone can be fitted with an LRAD sound cannon on the back powered by a Ford F550 Super Duper Heavy Duty plant. That Homeland Security grant money won’t spend itself.

Doesn’t matter. We’re here to get people back to work so they can make union made Red Vines. I talk to more workers. What are they striking for exactly? A woman sitting down with a sign with a pleasant, smiling face takes off her sunglasses and tells me. Her name is Yolanda.

So it turns out American Licorice wants the workers to pay $3000 per family or $1500 per individual for health care. All they want is to go back to our old plan. That’s it? No raise? No cut in hours per week?

The answer is no. No raise. They just want what they had before the boss took it away. In fact, their taking pay cuts as is because they didn’t get a cost-of-living increase. Sounds familiar to me. I see the signs painted by the workers’ kids. What they’re asking for is the health care they already had until someone got greedy.

It occurs to me they don’t even have “demands” in the usual sense. The 99% of this factory refuses to bear 100% of the “austerity measures” handed down from on high by the 1% of American Licorice, who happens to drive up right then in a huge, flossy SUV and gets turns back by the workers. Local 125 rejects that particular offer by the boss to cross the picket line.

OakFoSho tells me that American Licorice is profitable as its ever been and the factory is producing candy around the clock. Rene, a factory worker’s son who doesn’t even work at the only Red Vines factory in North America tells me that Major League Baseball, the National Basketball Association and movie theaters rake in huge profits on their candy. I know. Red Vines cost around $7 a pop at AT&T Park. Suddenly Bud Selig, David Stern and the Motion Picture Association of America are in the picture, 1%ers if there ever were any. Rene tells me he’s there just to support his dad.

Rene says something about the Huffmaster guard shoving women. Asshole #1? What a coward. Can Yolanda introduce me to them for an interview?

We’re talking on Liston Way where someone brought an RV in solidarity with a spread of food in the back, delicious homemade pork tamales, stacks of pizzas ordered by supporters from who-knows-where on the Internet and then delivered to us by grinning delivery drivers. Sanitation and parks workers in green vests set up tables of food for us. AFL-CIO. Teamsters. A pastor from the Occupy Interfaith Committee. Everyone’s here, even the Gravediggers Union.

Yolanda goes off to find the women and we meet at the donut shop a block away, away from the air horns and “Si se puede!” chants.

We head back to the factory. A scab driver with Utah plates and a tractor from Arcadia tries to deliver flour through the rear gate. We block him. The cops come in and create a seam big enough for the scab to wheel his delivery into a opening of the gate. The flour is an important delivery, along with high fructose corn syrup and citric acid. They only have a day or two’s worth of supply in the factory a worker tells me. American Licorice is on the ropes.

The scab is a terrible driver. Awful. He clumsily pulls in with the ass end of his trailer splayed across the sidewalk, which the cops tell us we’re blocking somehow. “I don’t want you to get hit” a Union City cop tells me as the rear tires claw around the sidewalk, trying to find purchase. The driver gets logjammed trying to back the trailer into the loading dock, with not enough real estate in the lot because there are a hundred of us outside the gate Huffmaster is forced to close. He backs the trailer over a curb repeatedly and nearly shears off his bumper on a concrete stantion when he isn’t looking. He calls the workers wetbacks. We hoot and holler, laughing at him. Real laughter from our guts looking at this scab trying to do work he’s not trained to do properly. He gets flustered, pauses and lights a cigarette.

Amazingly, he tries to one hand the wheel while holding the burning cigarette. He’s sweating. He wheels the cab around, nearly jack knifing it a half-dozen times in the middle of a 17-point turn. We roar in laughter at his incompetence. He completely loses his cool and scoots to the passenger side of the cab (away from us, away from the humiliation, away from our cameras) and consults with Huffmaster. Union City cops get ready. They open the gate. We flip the scab the bird. Call him a racist, which he is. Call him a thief, which he is. Tell him he has no honor.

He amateurishly saws the truck back and forth into place like Chris Farley doing the Fat Guy in a Little Coat routine, except with a tractor, a load of flour and the loading dock he keeps missing. We bellow at him, doubling over from the laughter erupting cathartically within us, like the Big One from the San Andreas Fault we are all standing on.

The scab can’t make eye contact with any of us. He’s red in the face from either embarrassment immortalized by our video cameras or anger or both, as red as the scab-made Red Vines he’s complicit in making. What should have been a 3 minute back-in done by a real professional has been stretched out into ages.

“Shoulda been trained by the Teamsters!”

You get the labor you pay for.

-Noah Zimmerman
Twitter @nzmrmn
[email protected]