On May 7, fruit packers at Allan Brothers walked off the job to protest conditions made deadly by the pandemic. They sparked a wave of strikes across the Yakima Valley. Freedom Socialist Party members Linda Averill and Christina López travelled there from Seattle to help publicize the fight. They brought a message of support from Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), a cross-union caucus whose aims align with the strikers. They interviewed picketers at Matson Fruit Company. Click here to take action to help these striking workers.
“We’re tired.” This simple message from Betsy (not her real name), a packer at Matson Fruit in Selah, Washington, is reminiscent of the words of Rosa Parks more than 70 years ago when she refused to give up her seat on a segregated bus in Montgomery, Alabama, sparking the legendary Montgomery Bus Boycott. Her act born from insufferable conditions marked a turning point in the 1950s and ’60s Civil Rights Movement.
Today, ignited by the spreading coronavirus, a super-exploited, majority immigrant workforce may be similarly poised to win historic gains as they fight for safety, respect, and unionization against a $2.5 billion dollar industry well-known for its callous disregard of workers’ rights. Betsy is one of hundreds of fruit packers throughout the fertile Yakima Valley who are participating in the growing wave of wildcat strikes. Pseudonyms are used for all the workers interviewed for this article since retaliation is a real danger.
Conditions in fruit picking and processing have long been terrible and protests are recurring. But the coronavirus has acted like a spark, igniting a wildfire in a drought-stricken forest. The bosses could have a hard time putting out the flames this time, because people’s lives are on the line.
At stake are workers’ rights not only in Yakima, but throughout eastern Washington — a region that is as notorious for its anti-union practices as the U.S. South. If victorious, the strike could be a much-needed shot in the arm for the whole labor movement.
A fed-up labor force. The Matson strike began May 12 after employees at Jack Frost and Allan Brothers had already walked out. That day several packers were gathered on break, trying to talk to their boss about hazard pay. When the boss became angry and told them to leave the plant, they set up pickets across the street from the huge facility. Police have been called out on the strikers several times. A group of “white citizens” came by and yelled abuse. But they are standing firm, with only a few returning to the job.
Leading up to the walkout, rumors began circulating that at least 11 workers were sick with the virus. There were no temperature checks or testing, and no safety measures. The company was pushing workers to return to their shifts after cutting production during Governor Inslee’s stay-at-home order for March and April.
Now fruit is rotting and workers confront speedup with little spacing between them. Only 25 masks were ordered for 300 employees, and they were told they would have to pay for them. “We have children at home,” said Gabriela, a leader on the picket line. “We are putting ourselves in harm’s way and we risk taking the virus to our families.”
Just last month, a Tyson beef processing plant in Walla Walla County made national headlines when more than 250 workers became ill with the new coronavirus. Three have since died and more have come down sick. Gabriela’s brother works at the plant. Clearly, as the virus hit Tyson workers it spread and infected entire communities and workplaces.
Yakima County is now the top hot spot for the virus. It has three times the percentage of cases as the rest of the state at almost 93 per 10,000 residents. Seventy-five people have died. Latino neighborhoods are hardest hit. And it’s all a direct result of poor safety practices in the meat and fruit processing industries.
Workers at other fruit packing companies have joined the strike wave, widening the stoppage over safety, hazard pay, and respect. Cars parked near various plants sport slogans, such as “No dying at work.” Recently, a car caravan with hundreds of supporters wound its way between the plants honking its support.
Building a united fight. The plants have coordinating committees whose demands are unified across the different factories. Columbia Reach Pack, Frosty Packing, Roche Fruit, Jack Frost, Matson Fruit, Monson, Hansen and Allan Brothers all have workers participating in the strikes.
Gabriela is a dynamic young woman who is also one of the workers on the committee representing Matson strikers. She said they want $2 per hour hazard pay until the killer virus subsides. They also want personal protective equipment including masks, gloves, hand sanitizer, soap and adequate handwashing facilities, and social distancing.
On Friday, May 22, the committee met with the owner and he seemed to be listening to them, she said. The demands around making work safe due to the coronavirus are paramount, as are guarantees against retaliation. There is hope the committee can become permanent so that workers have a collective voice as other issues come up.
History of bad conditions. Many of the workers at Matson are veterans with more than 15 years on the job. They all earn the state’s minimum wage of $13.50 per hour. Charles, another picketer, said there is no extra sick leave to draw upon for those who get the virus. With workers already coming off of reduced incomes from the previous two months, there is pressure to go to work, sick or not.
Spanish is the predominant language, and many employees are immigrants. But the workforce is diverse including members of the Wapato Indian Nation and African Americans. One problem is that many of the supervisors give instructions only in Spanish, leaving in the dark those who don’t speak the language.
Another concern is sexual harassment. Sofia, a veteran packer, emphasized the importance of this issue for women. Those who are young and newly-hired are subjected to abuse. She cited one supervisor who is especially notorious. “He tells them he wants to go out on a date … and keeps trying until they say yes.” Matson’s Human Resources Department knows about his behavior but does nothing. Newer, good-looking females who go along with the attention are rewarded with favoritism. The pressure is constant.
Committee member Gabriela said another issue is a lack of bathroom access. There is only one bathroom for each gender, for more than 50 employees. These are just a few of the ways disrespect plays out.
In solidarity is strength. Strikers at all the plants are getting support from Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The independent farmworkers union won appreciation and respect for its democratic and worker-empowering methods when it helped strawberry pickers at Sakuma Brothers in northwest Washington win historic gains and a labor contract in 2017. Unionization in eastern Washington’s fruit-packing industry would constitute a giant step forward. While western Washington is fairly organized, workers on the east side of the Cascade Mountains suffer from low unionization and abysmal conditions in the agricultural and meatpacking industries. Covid-19 has made those conditions a matter of life and death.
The workers know they have an uphill battle to win their demands and unionization. Growers and packinghouse owners are mostly tight-fisted and hard-hearted. But “Covid-19 has given us the strength to speak up,” said Gabriela. What the strikers urgently need now is community and labor support to give their movement a weight that can force the bosses to the negotiating table. ¡Viva la Huelga!