Class Gets Employees on Speaking Terms

For Reynaldo Chavez communicating with his bosses at S&W Fine Foods in Modesto was not an easy task. “I couldn’t speak English and they can’t speak Spanish,” he said.

Things are changing for him since he enrolled in an English class offered to cannery workers by Teamsters Union Local 748.

In Martha Barron’s class, held at the union local on I Street, Chavez and 70 other students learn conversational English and terminology they will use in the canneries where they work. They also learn to read and write in English.

Local 748 Secretary-Treasurer Ron Ashlock said $110,000 from a discrimination settlement awarded to cannery workers in 1976 is being used to pay for the courses they plan to offer.

The workers, including women and minorities, sued area canneries on the basis of discrimination in 1973. They were awarded the $5 million in the form of training programs and promotions over five years. Ashlock said the $110,000 had never been spent and he learned of its existence in casual conversation.

“We wanted to make sure the money was used for its original purpose to help women and minorities in the canneries. With that amount of money we could hold classes for about 10 years,” Ashlock said.

Students have been attending Barron’s classes each Monday and Wednesday since late October. Barron, who teaches at Modesto Junior College, has an aide who helps her teach students such things as how to talk to their bosses, how to read labels, how to get along on a visit to the hospital and how to ask questions.

William Trimble, division dean of literature and language arts for Modesto Junior College, said that after a semester of the English class students can enroll in food processing classes at the college.

“This is a way to help people succeed and to become more upwardly mobile in their own occupation. In the food processing industry that may call for English,” Trimble said.

Chavez, who has been working in canneries for 19 years, said after some more work on his English he will consider taking the college course.

“I’ve gotten better at talking with the bosses. It has been hard in the past when you try to talk and don’t know the words. You can only make signals with your hands,” he said.

Students were so enthusiastic about their classes and an opportunity to learn English that they signed a petition asking for the classes to be extended until May, when many of them start work again. Trimble said that was the plan all along.

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