Slingshot: How Two Legendary Women Helped Organize OC Labor
Updated: Sep 10
Dorothy Ray Healey and Luisa Moreno aren't recalled by history as often as they deserve. Healey, a Jew, and Moreno, a Guatemalan immigrant, both played pivotal roles building the working power of women, especially mexicanas, through the United Cannery, Agricultural, Packing and Allied Workers of America (UCAPAWA) nearly a century ago.
The pair also counted themselves as longtime members of the Communist Party of the United States of America, which may play a role in the collective amnesia surrounding their contributions.
Even lesser known is the fact that their dedication to the working class brought them to Orange County on more than one occasion, lending leadership to decisive labor battles.
As recounted in Healey's autobiography, California Red: A Life in the American Communist Party, she described herself as a "whirling dervish" between the years of 1937 and 1940, traveling from one labor strike to another, including a stop with field workers in Fullerton.
Around that same time, Healey served as a UCAPAWA representative when in OC to organize orange pickers. She noted that deportations of Mexicans and dust bowl migration of whites had racially reshaped the agricultural workforce.
"One exception was a strike of orange pickers in Orange County, centered in Santa Ana, where once again I lived in a Mexican colony," wrote Healey. "The small growers, who were mostly Japanese, wanted to settle with us, but the big Anglo growers, who controlled the shipping and the bank loans, wouldn't let them."
Healey recounts being arrested during the campaign, one that generated headlines condemning her as an "outside agitator" but thankfully didn't translate into a lengthy jail stay. Unfortunately, scouring old newspapers online doesn't produce the sensationalist headlines. And the Citrus Strike happened in 1936, a year before she noted her dizzying return home to Los Angeles.
The work pinpointing the date and circumstances surrounding Healey's arrest through those newspaper clippings as well as what colonia she resided in remains to be done; once the pandemic is over, a trip to her special collection housed at Cal State Long Beach should suffice.
Moreno, a fellow traveler in the labor movement and the party, left a much more indelible mark in OC. Her main contribution came in 1942, when she took leadership of a UCAPAWA union campaign at Val Vita in Fullerton, by far the largest cannery plant in California at the time.
Vicki Ruiz, a UC Irvine professor emerita of history and Chicano Studies, writes in her classic 1987 book Cannery Women, Cannery Lives, that three-quarters of the line workers at the plant were mexicanas. They suffered from poor working conditions, including low pay, exhausting work loads and no child care on-site.
The plant on Commonwealth Avenue had been eyed for union trouble-making as far back as 1937. When Moreno arrived, she ensured that tomatoes weren't the only things that were red at Val Vita.
With her seasoned leadership, as vice president of her union, a new day arrived in the autumn of 1942. That's when UCAPAWA earned a runaway victory during a National Labor Relations Board election; Two-hundred and sixty-two cannery workers voted to join the union, far outpacing all other options on the ballot.
They won better pay and on-site child care rights. But it didn't come without a fight.
In one incident, Ruiz recounts that a Val Vita supervisor viciously assaulted Amelia Salgado, a worker and Mexican national, just outside the cannery's gates during the campaign. The Mexican consulate and OC advocacy groups demanded the company pay damages for the harm done.
Years after the Val Vita battle, Moreno voluntarily returned to Guatemala in 1950 before the United States could deport her on account of being a red menace. Following her successful union effort in Fullerton, she continued on in the local labor movement by helping to form the Citrus Workers Organizing Committee. The union won several campaigns, including at an onion dehydration plant in Santa Ana.
Moreno's work in OC also withstood the test of her absence. In 1944, the Hunt brothers bought the cannery plant in Fullerton from Val Vita. The American Federation of Labor attempted to decertify UCAPAWA through the NLRB.
The effort failed.
- Gabriel San Román
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Your Mouse Muckraker / Photo by Federico Medina
Boarding a canoe off of Mill View Lane at Disneyland, I readied my paddle to trek across the Rivers of America last year. I never bothered with the paddle-powered attraction before, but curiosity got the best of me. The views were relaxing, but the work was taxing!
Even still, I kept paddling along. Sadly, the same couldn't be said for the rest of the crew.
The canoe guides picked up the slack, especially when people rested their paddles in favor of taking pictures and videos with their phones towards the end. Eventually, we made it back to the dock--no thanks to the quitters!
When considering Disneyland's labor history, lazy paddlers played a role. Before bearing the name "Davy Crockett," the vessels were simply known as "Indian war canoes" in the Manifest Destiny mindfuck that was--shit, that forever is Frontierland.
By the 1970s, Native American canoe guides had enough and unionized with the Teamsters. UC Irvine professor Jon Weiner documented the reason why when speaking with John Hench, a former senior vice president at Walt Disney Imagineering.
"They complained that the white people didn't know how to paddle," said Hench. "They said the work was too hard. They wanted motors put on the canoes."
Before becoming a union battleground, Disneyland used the canoes in competitive races between workers, an effort that Disney officials claimed built up morale. The Indian Village men's team won first place in 1967, according to an article in the Los Angeles Times. In the women's division, the French Market squad bested all others, including the awfully named "Village Squaws" team.
Lastly, being a canoe guide became a space for contested gender politics at work. In 1995, a woman finally served in that role after decades of only men being at the helm.
And that's your OC labor history from canneries to canoes!
By the Byline
A new month means a new Off the Page column with LibroMobile!
This time I feature Vanessa Diaz about her new book Manufacturing Celebrity. It's chalk-full of revealing insights into what Diaz deems the Hollywood-industrial complex. From Latino paparazzi being demonized on the hustle to snap exclusive photos of celebrities to the gender exploitation of women reporters, Diaz lays bare the pecking order of celebrity news production.
Betcha won't flip through People magazine the same way ever again!
Val Vita cannery workers in Fulas / Photo credit: Terp00 / CC BY-SA (https://creativecommons.org/licenses/by-sa/3.0)