Safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay are the two main demands at the center of work stoppages by people working during the COVID-19 pandemic.
The May 14 COVID-related strike in Washington state’s Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out of 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 Selah Matson Fruit Co. The next day, another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed in Selah.
Inside these huge apple sheds, 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 into the surrounding towns. Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, 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 — Central Washington’s largest employer — and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. However, the virus may change that if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization. It is what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines when farmworker union organizers are helping to sustain the walkouts.
“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 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.
“People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home,” said Edgar Franks, political director of a new union for Washington farmworkers, Familias Unidas Por La Justicia. “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? We have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we dBy Mark Friedman, Contributing Columniston’t come in to work now.”
In response to the demands, she 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 Co., did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead and they went back to work.
“At the heart of their dissatisfaction is that they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that,” Franks said.
At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, a woman said 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 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.”
Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. He thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him.
“This connection between us is something new and there are people out here from lots of the plants,” Lopez said.
He believes the answer will be determined by the strike.
“If the companies are willing to negotiate, we’ll listen to what they have to say,” he said. “And if not, then we will continue with our strike.”