Written By: AnnaMarie Della Sala-Stanton
Rosie and her sisters Mary and Katie took jobs working in the canneries to help cover their own doctor, dentist and clothing expenses to lighten the load for their parents, who had no medical insurance and were already burdened with hospital, doctor and insulin expenses for Giuseppe. Rosie was only 13 at the time, and the legal age for working in the canneries was 18, but the cannery-floor ladies were so desperate for workers they did not challenge her when she told them she was 18. She started working at the Hovden Cannery, which is now the site of the Monterey Bay Aquarium. After school she would walk to the cannery and ask if she was needed--help was in such short supply that anyone could walk in and be put to work. She wore knee-high boots, a bandana to cover her hair, an apron and gloves; it was the rare occasion when she wore jeans.
Rosie was a cutter and a packer, paid $1.50 an hour as a cutter and less as a packer. As a cutter she used the cutting machines to remove the heads and tails of the fish. At the Enea Cannery larger fish like mackerel were cut by hand with a knife. During the summers when she was working full time, Rosie would go from one cannery to another as needed, often for 16 to 18 hours a day. Because there were no freezers at that time, all the catch of the day had to be processed before it spoiled. The floor lady would punch the workers’ cards when they started and finished, and they were paid once a week on Wednesdays. During the full moon, fishermen didn’t fish, so there was no work; the cannery workers got unemployment. At the Enterprise Cannery, owned by Buster Sollecito, there was a cafeteria upstairs where employees could purchase soup and sandwiches during their breaks.
One day while working at CAL PAK, also known as Del Monte Cannery, Rosie heard the foreman, Mr. Tarantino, yelling down at her from the catwalk where he was overseeing the workers, “Take your fingers away from the blades!” A moment Rosie never forgot. She was taking the fish from the bins and placing them on the belt, which moved the fish toward the cutting blades. There were approximately ten slots on the belt where the fish were placed head-first, as the belt fed them into the guillotine-type blades. Rosie was very carefully trying to place each fish on the belt to minimize the amount that was cut off the head. She was so focused on doing the best job possible, she was not paying attention to the risk of harming her fingers. That wake-up call prevented any accident, and she still has all ten fingers.