Hundreds of Fruit Packing Workers Are On Strike

David Bacon May 19, 2020

Workers on strike in Naches, Washington, outside of Allan Brothers Fruit on May 16, 2020. Hundreds of workers at more than six fruit and apple packing plants have gone on strike in recent days, protesting working conditions made more dangerous by the Covid-19 pandemic. (Photo by David Ryder/Getty Images)

This arti­cle was orig­i­nal­ly pub­lished at Labor Notes.

Since this arti­cle was writ­ten, apple pack­ing­house work­ers at two more com­pa­nies have joined the strike: at Hansen Fruit and Colum­bia Reach. Six work­sites in Yaki­ma Coun­ty have now seen pro­duc­tion shut down. The coun­ty has the high­est rate of COVID-19 cas­es on the West Coast. The strikes are women-led, multi­gen­er­a­tional, and mul­tira­cial, accord­ing to Edgar Franks of Famil­ias Unidas por la Jus­ti­cia, a local farm­work­ers’ union. —Edi­tors

Last week the COVID-relat­ed strike in Wash­ing­ton state’s Yaki­ma Val­ley quadru­pled in size, as work­ers walked out at three more apple pack­ing­hous­es. More than a hun­dred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Broth­ers Fruit, a large apple grow­ing, pack­ing and ship­ping com­pa­ny in Nach­es, in Cen­tral Wash­ing­ton. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more work­ers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yaki­ma, and at the Mat­son Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day anoth­er 100 work­ers walked out at the Mon­son Fruit pack­ing shed, also in Selah.

At the cen­ter of the stop­pages are two main demands for those who decide to con­tin­ue work­ing dur­ing the pan­dem­ic: safer work­ing con­di­tions and an extra $2 an hour in haz­ard pay.

Apple sheds line the indus­tri­al streets of Yaki­ma Valley’s small towns. Inside these huge con­crete build­ings, hun­dreds of peo­ple labor shoul­der-to-shoul­der, sort­ing and pack­ing fruit. If some­one gets sick, it can poten­tial­ly spread through the work­ers on the lines, and from them into the sur­round­ing towns. Although pack­ing­house labor­ers are almost entire­ly immi­grants from Mex­i­co, their fam­i­lies com­prise the sta­ble heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusi­ness is by far Cen­tral Washington’s largest employ­er, and the indus­try has suc­cess­ful­ly fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, how­ev­er, if the strike wave becomes the spark for cre­at­ing a per­ma­nent orga­ni­za­tion among these work­ers. It is undoubt­ed­ly what the com­pa­nies fear when they see work­ers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farm­work­er union orga­niz­ers help­ing to sus­tain the walkouts.

Seek­ing Healthy Workplaces

The most impor­tant demand for us is that we have a healthy work­place and pro­tec­tion from the virus,” said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike lead­ers at Allan Broth­ers. Four­teen peo­ple have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the com­pa­ny isn’t pay­ing them. We need pro­tec­tions at work, like ade­quate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infect­ed if there are no tests?” (Allan Broth­ers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for com­ment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Broth­ers didn’t dis­in­fect the plant and stop pro­duc­tion when the work­ers got sick. One work­er, Jen­nifer Gar­ton, told the Yaki­ma Her­ald, They are not doing what they’re say­ing they’re doing,” and that work­ers only heard about the cas­es of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

Accord­ing to Lopez, at the end of April the work­ers sent an email to com­pa­ny man­agers, ask­ing for bet­ter con­di­tions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. Peo­ple were tak­ing their vaca­tions or sick leave or any­thing they could to stay home. The com­pa­ny said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We’re only mak­ing min­i­mum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guar­an­tee we would even have our jobs back if we don’t come in to work now.”

In response to the demands, he says the com­pa­ny offered to buy the work­ers lunch. Over a hun­dred work­ers reject­ed that and struck the company.

The shed of anoth­er Yaki­ma pack­er, Roche Fruit Com­pa­ny, did stop work in April to dis­in­fect the plant, after two work­ers had become infect­ed. Roche employ­ees then also demand­ed haz­ard pay in a mes­sage to man­agers. When the com­pa­ny offered an addi­tion­al $200 per month, the labor­ers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bar­gain­ing, the com­pa­ny offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Oper­a­tions man­ag­er Alfon­so Pine­da said the com­pa­ny had already planned to give work­ers grat­i­tude pay” for work­ing in dif­fi­cult circumstances.

At the heart of the dis­sat­is­fac­tion of all these work­ers is the fact they are essen­tial work­ers, but their pay does not reflect that,” says Edgar Franks, the polit­i­cal direc­tor of the new union for Wash­ing­ton farm work­ers, Famil­ias Unidas por la Jus­ti­cia. He explains that work­ers from both Roche and Allan Broth­ers got in touch with them when they were get­ting ready to strike. The walk­outs then start­ed after man­age­ment refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union orga­niz­ers and lead­er­ship arrived, man­age­ment quick­ly relent­ed. This is the pow­er of the pres­ence of the union.”

Dri­ven By Fear

But fear is dri­ving the strikes, even more than wages. After walk­ing out of the pack­ing plant, work­ers at Jack Frost stood in a big cir­cle six feet apart while Clau­dia, a strik­er, explained that they were fight­ing for the health of their whole com­mu­ni­ty. We want every­one to have a health exam­i­na­tion, includ­ing our chil­dren and oth­er peo­ple pos­si­bly affect­ed,” she declared. We want it for our whole fam­i­ly, because we know the virus doesn’t just stay in the plant. It’s out­side too.”

At the ral­ly in front of the Allan Broth­ers pack­ing­house, anoth­er woman said the same thing: that the biggest ques­tion was whether they could work with­out get­ting sick. We have peo­ple who have been affect­ed in this shed,” she told Yaki­ma city coun­cil­woman Dulce Gutier­rez. We want the com­pa­ny to guar­an­tee that there are no more peo­ple who have the virus here at work, so that we can pro­tect our­selves and our families.”

The work­ing con­di­tions them­selves are respon­si­ble for much of the dan­ger, and Franks says the com­pa­nies have not been respon­sive. Ever since the governor’s order [man­dat­ing phys­i­cal dis­tanc­ing and safe con­di­tions], a lot of the safe­ty mea­sures haven’t reached the work­ers inside. The work­ers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, pack­ing the fruit going through there. Work­ers got sick, and they’re con­cerned that no one is look­ing after them or the well­be­ing of their fam­i­ly and friends still inside.”

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yaki­ma Val­ley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His expe­ri­ence has made him cau­tious, there­fore, about pre­dict­ing whether work­ers will decide if a per­ma­nent union is the answer to their prob­lems. But when he looks at the waves of peo­ple leav­ing the apple sheds, each com­pa­ny encour­ag­ing the next one, he thinks change is not just pos­si­ble, but hap­pen­ing around him. This con­nec­tion between us is some­thing new,” he says, and there are peo­ple out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actu­al­ly a fed­er­a­tion.” The answer will be deter­mined by the strike, he believes. If the com­pa­nies are will­ing to nego­ti­ate, we’ll lis­ten to what they have to say. And if not, then we will con­tin­ue with our strike.”

Read­ers inter­est­ed in sup­port­ing the strik­ers can donate to Famil­ias Unidas por La Justicia

A ver­sion of this arti­cle orig­i­nal­ly appeared in Cap­i­tal and Main.

David Bacon is a writer, pho­tog­ra­ph­er and for­mer union orga­niz­er. He is the author of The Right to Stay Home: How US Pol­i­cy Dri­ves Mex­i­can Migra­tion (2013), Ille­gal Peo­ple: How Glob­al­iza­tion Cre­ates Migra­tion and Crim­i­nal­izes Immi­grants (2008), Com­mu­ni­ties With­out Bor­ders (2006), and The Chil­dren of NAF­TA: Labor Wars on the US/​Mexico Bor­der (2004). His web­site is at dba​con​.igc​.org.
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