Three hundred strikers. Between 30 and 40 police officers. Nearly 70 injured. Multiple counts of assault and multiple arrests. Busted windows. Destroyed patrol cars.
"I got in a fight and was knocked down. I had cracked ribs and ended up in the hospital."
-- Police Sergeant Gerald Birdsell
What began as a union strike finally had escalated into a full blown riot. Workers affiliated with AFL-CIO's Fresh Foods and Vegetable Workers Union went on strike at Lindemann Packing Shed on July 20, 1983. Union workers walked out on the job over a wage dispute.
In the five months prior to the strike, George Lindemann, co-owner, negotiated with the union. According to news accounts, Lindemann offered a 10 percent pay cut to all workers and a decrease in the maximum number of cartons on which a worker's salary was based while the union offered a wage freeze with an increase in maximum cartons packed translating to about a 10 percent wage increase. The packing company gave "all eligible employees or seniority employees' opportunity to return to work," and on July 18 employees voted whether or not to return to work.
Lindemann said he sought to lower wages to allow the company to have a viable packing shed operation.
"The economy has caused a dramatic change in the industry with more companies switching to packing in the fields for cost reduction. Packing in the fields was no longer a choice, but an economic necessity for us," he said at the time.
Lindemann Produce Inc. was one of the nation's biggest shippers of cantaloupes and honeydew melons and was the only melon shipper that marketed the fruit year-round. It exported melons to all 50 states, Canada, Hong Kong, Singapore, Japan and Taiwan.
Union workers began their strike on July 20, 1983. The next day, the strikers set up a picket line around the yard on Mercy Springs Road and G Street. That same day, two picketers were arrested for allegedly opening the dump bins on a cantaloupe truck entering the yard, spilling about $700 worth of melons.
In the weeks leading up to the riot, many strikers and picketers were arrested for varying reasons, mostly assaults. They threw rocks and bottles into the fenced packing shed yard, at trucks entering the yard, patrol vehicles escorting workers from the shed, and employees' vehicles. They even threw projectiles at the employees, who were newly hired and worked for 40 percent less than the shed paid the prior year, injuring a few.
Strikers didn't stop there. After wreaking havoc at the sheds, they caused problems in court. Bill Hunter, Merced County district attorney based in Los Banos at the time, remembers strikers were frustrated because the picketing did not stop workers from entering the yard, and attempts to block the driveway were thwarted by the police. Hunter said, "They made false reports saying non-strikers assaulted them when police clearly saw they didn't. They wanted the non-union workers to lose their jobs."
These minor incidents culminated in the August 5, 1983, riot. Fresh off the labor feud at the A. Levy & J. Zetner packing shed near Firebaugh, more than 300 striking union workers stormed the Lindemann Packing Shed here in Los Banos, hurling rocks, bottles, bricks, and steel spears made from fence posts.
Thirty to forty officers arrived from the Los Banos Police Department, the California Highway Patrol, and the Merced County Sheriff's Department as well as off duty policeman in attempts to ward off the strikers.
Then Los Banos Police Sgt. Gerald Birdsell was one of the first to arrive at the scene. He recalls, "I got in a fight and was knocked down. I had cracked ribs and ended up going to the hospital."
An off-duty Los Banos officer at the time, Carey Reid, was called from home to provide back up. Though he received a minor cut, Reid remembers it to have been "raining rocks." He also recalls seeing boot marks on the back of Sgt. Birdsell's uniform and watching on TV then-Police Chief Charles Martin giving a press conference having just got back from the hospital with a bloody head and shirt.
The strike was such a big deal that it drew national attention. The New York Times newspaper sent reporters to cover the violence.
At the end of this very violent one-day strike, nine officers and about 60 workers were injured.
About 20 rioters were arrested.
The story continued in the local courtroom long after the strike ended, and almost all except one or two were convicted, the majority on minor counts.
"Ask Us" is produced by Tim McNally's Advanced Placement American government class at Los Banos High School. Do you have a question about the history of Los Banos? Submit it to Mr. McNally's class by email to tmcnally@losbanos usd.k12.ca.us, by phone to (209) 826-6033 or by mail to Los Banos High School, 1966 S. 11th St. Los Banos, CA 93635.
I got in a fight and was knocked down. I had cracked ribs and ended up in the hospital. Police Sergeant Gerald Birdsell By Tiffany Liu Three hundred strikers. Between 30 and 40 police officers. Nearly 70 injured. Multiple c