Packinghouse workers striking for their lives

On the strike line at Matson Fruit in Selah, Washington — Left to right: Marilyn and Roger Yockey; Eli, an immigration lawyer; and Jenny, a striking worker. PHOTO: Supplied by the author
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I have walked with striking workers for over five decades. Paint company workers, furniture strikers, state and county workers, Greyhound Bus workers, and, in 1989, the 81-day strike of Pacific Northwest grocery workers.

But the strike of fruit packinghouse workers in Yakima, Washington felt different from them all. This was organic. It rose up from the workers who walked out and kept the struggle going strong for more than a month. They elected committees to meet with the company owners. Workers, most often women, were the leaders.

The strikers fought the bosses, the state of Washington and the Covid-19 virus. They picketed six companies, carrying signs saying “Jack Frost is killing us,” “Hansen, protect workers,” “Essential workers deserve protection.”

“Everyone is scared,” one worker told me. They wanted protection with masks, places to wash their hands, distancing, transparency about Covid-19 in the packing sheds, hazard pay, and no retaliation against strikers. They did not want to get sick and infect their families.

Strikers said they worked elbow to elbow, back to back, without masks, hand sanitizer, gloves, sick leave or hazard pay. By late May, there were more than 600 cases of Covid-19 among agricultural workers in Yakima. Of those, 62 percent were workers in the apple and other packing operations or warehouses. As of June 10, Yakima County had the highest infection rate on the West Coast.

The striking workers lost pay and risked their jobs. Elvira Medina and Cesar Gonzalez, strikers at Allan Brothers Fruit in Naches, went on a hunger strike to protest stalled negotiations.

Solidarity with the strikers was widespread. Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ), an independent union based in Washington’s Skagit Valley, provided the strikers with important information about workers’ rights and organizing, and boosted strikers’ morale.

Community to Community (C2C), a women-led, food sustainability and immigrant rights organization, had their folks on the lines throughout the strike. C2C Executive Director Rosalinda Guillen, put it bluntly, “This country gets its food supply on the backs of people who these companies treat as expendable. That hasn’t changed at all.”

A May 30 caravan, 85 cars strong, with supporters from Seattle, Spokane, and the Tri-Cities came to Yakima and Selah honking, shouting “¡Si se puede!” and “¡Viva la huelga!” Posters in Spanish and English proclaimed, “Did you eat today? Thank an essential worker,” with a drawing of a woman with arms raised and a bucket of apples.

Another caravan descended on Olympia to deliver more than 200 complaints about working conditions to the Department of Labor and Industries demanding “meaningful investigations.”

UFCW Local 21 had members in the big car caravan and Local 21 activist and FSP member Jared Houston was interviewed by a Yakima television station. Unionists Linda Averill and Christina López visited striking workers at Matson Fruit in Selah, delivered a message of support from Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), and wrote an article published on the Freedom Socialist Party website.

More than 400 workers walked out of the huge, concrete packinghouses in three Yakima Valley cities, Yakima, Selah, and Naches, to ensure safe places to work. This was a diverse, multi-generational, multi-racial group — Mexican immigrants, Mexican Americans, African Americans, and members of the Yakama Nation. They were a family and they cared about each other. They shared food, water and shade. They carried picket signs for many hours.

David Cruz, an Allan Brothers worker for 12 years, died from the virus. He was among the first group of workers who went on strike. David’s wife and daughter also became ill but thankfully recovered. The Strike/Huelga Collective said it was infuriating that David Cruz died, on strike for protection from the virus for himself and his co-workers.

The strike won social distancing and masks, much-needed protection from the virus. But something else was achieved. Workers learned they can win by standing together. They also inspired the labor movement.

Rosalinda Gonzalez, a 19-year Columbia Reach worker, said: “I feel we have the power to change things.” She was a member of the strikers’ committee that submitted the workers’ demands to the company.

Hundreds of fruit packinghouse workers in the fertile Yakima Valley battled bosses, state agencies, and a deadly, spreading virus to change things. ¡Si se puede!

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