Sunday, September 27, 2009

After 35 Years, A Case Of Tuna And Lost Pension

It must be a bittersweet experience for my mother-in-law and hundreds of cannery workers being honored today for their contributions to a city's industry that was snuffed a generation ago.

The San Diego Unified Port District spent a half-million dollars to erect a bronze sculpture and commemorate the site honoring tuna and albacore fishing and cannery workers at the waterfront.

The story in the San Diego Union-Tribune featured Eloise Osuna, my mother-in-law, as a primary spokesperson for the cannery workers, almost all Latina women. The heritage left behind by these women is superbly portrayed in the story.

At its height in the early 1950s, the industry generated $65 million for the local economy — about $550 million in today's dollars, said University of San Diego economist Alan Gin — and employed more than 17,000 workers.

The decline began in the 1970s because of stricter fishing regulations enacted to protect dolphins and increased foreign competition.

For her 35 years of service, Eloise received a case of tuna.

Eloise Cavada Osuna is a proud woman, a gracious lady who would not speak ill about the cannery bosses and owner for purposes of an event honoring her work in a newspaper story.

But what ended their jobs was not so much the demise of an industry but their life-long savings by the manipulations of a crooked owner who used cannery worker pension funds for his own personal gains.

The cannery Eloise and thousands worked for was Westgate, a subsidiary of the far-flung business empire created by C. Arnholt Smith, owner of U.S. National Bank and founder of the San Diego Padres. U.S. National was the largest bank failure in U.S. history when Smith's house of cards collapsed in 1972. He went to jail and his cannery workers lost hundreds of dollars in monthly pensions.

In the years leading up to the closure, Eloise told me Westgate cannery supervisors encouraged the employees to participate in its retirement fund by contributing portions of their pay checks to the pension fund.

The women decided it was a good investment for the future. After all, Mr. Smith was a powerful man, a philanthropist and voted Mr. San Diego by his peers in the business community. In the end, they were betrayed and their life savings vanished. Eloise believed the bosses were dupes of Smith's scheme.

"Mr. Smith was an evil man," Eloise once told me. Surviving after the canneries shut down was a struggle for all the Latinas and their families. Eloise lived on limited Social Security, Medicare and MediCal benefits and occasional financial help from her children and sons-in-law.

Two years ago she finally inherited her portion of proceeds from her mother's estate and is enjoying the benefits at long last. I danced with her at her 85th birthday celebration and as usual she was the life of the party.


Anonymous said...

How sad that employers can be so selfish and cruel. There are many great ones out there, but Eloise's wasn't one of them!

LJR said...

Nice piece. Wish it were unique. Getting duped, including by employers, seems to be a national past time in this country of ours. Makes one wonder if you can trust anyone. The amazing thing is that the story usually ends with the story of the rip off. Oftentimes the best story is the very human side about how people deal with their misfortune, and often rise above it. Eloise seems such a person.