Del Monte workers grapple with future
By Dan Nakaso
Advertiser Staff Writer
By Dan Nakaso
Politicians, state labor officials and union leaders spoke to Del Monte Fresh Produce pineapple workers yesterday about the potential for future help with housing and new jobs when Del Monte ceases more than a century of growing pineapples in Central O'ahu sometime after 2008.
But the details were lost on many of the 324 employees who came to yesterday's meeting at the Kunia Camp plantation, several employees said. Many of them, often second- and third-generation plantation workers, still have yet to grasp the concept that their way of life is about to end, said Fred Galdones, president of ILWU Local 142.
"It seems that they have not quite changed their mind-set, that they have not transitioned from plantation life to life after the plantation," Galdones said. "A lot of them are still trying to come to terms with the shock, let alone where they're going to put their lives once this is all over."
Two weeks ago, workers planted what company officials called their final Hawai'i crop, following an earlier announcement that Del Monte will pull out of Hawai'i once the final harvest comes in in another 18 months to two years.
Yesterday, a host of city, state and labor officials ran down a list of programs, legislative bills, City Council resolutions and sources of undetermined federal and state money designed to help workers stay in their low-cost plantation housing, get job retraining and gain access to programs like food stamps and consumer credit counseling.
But most of the programs are still in the promise stage.
"It is an uncertain future they face in Hawai'i," said state Sen. Ron Menor, D-17th (Mililani, Mililani Mauka, Waipi'o). "The employees who attended were somewhat reassured that government and other agencies understand their concerns and will do everything we can to address their needs. I told them, 'Our hearts are with them.' "
Menor came to yesterday's packed meeting at the Kunia Camp gym as the chairman of the state Senate Housing Committee. But Menor's family also worked the Big Island's 'Ola'a Puna sugar plantation and Menor spent his summers at Dole Food Co.'s pineapple operation in Wahiawa.
"It was back-breaking work," Menor said. "I feel even more committed to use my position to help."
As gray rain clouds hung in the sky and a caravan of pickup trucks and import cars kicked up clouds of red plantation dust after the meeting, several workers said they were numbed by the volume of information.
Del Monte officials allowed elected officials and state officials inside the gym but kept the media outside of Kunia Camp.
FEARS OF LOSING 'OHANA
Inside the packed gym, employees said, the mood was somber as one announcement after another focused on potential programs and future possibilities to retain their plantation homes, rather than a miracle announcement that somehow their way of life would continue.
"Everybody not happy," said Froiland Madriaga, a 34-year-old drip irrigation operator.
Like others, Madriaga referred to Del Monte's closing as a possibility rather than a reality, clinging to the hope that somehow they can continue planting and picking pineapples in Central O'ahu.
"If Del Monte closes, according to them, they'll try to help us," Madriaga said. "They're trying to help us with training programs, stuff like that."
Darlene Palmerton, a third- generation Del Monte employee who works as an inventory clerk in the mechanics shop, said, "We're all sad. For most people, they're most worried about losing their homes. We just want to work. We're scared of losing our 'ohana."
ILWU leaders are scheduled to meet tomorrow with representatives of the Kunia Camp's landowner, Campbell Estate. No agenda has been set, said Tracy Takano, international representative of the ILWU, and no details have been discussed.
But the overall plan, Takano said, is to "save the camp."
Rosenda Ulep, a 67-year-old employee in the packing department, had to stop for a moment to consider what she will do if and when Del Monte brings in its final harvest.
"I guess we will look for another new job," she said.
Although yesterday's meeting produced few specifics on issues like permanent housing and future jobs, Galdones said the guests voiced a single, important message.
"We'll all pull together and work together," he said, "so we can all overcome what everyone's going through."
Reach Dan Nakaso at email@example.com.