Wildcat strikes spreading in Yakima, Wash. over unsafe working conditions
Workers in the Yakima area's fruit plants are demanding better working conditions. | Familias Unidas Por La Justicia

YAKIMA, Wash.—On May 7, over 100 workers at Allen Brothers Fruit in Naches, Wash., near Yakima, went on strike, protesting unsafe and unhealthy working conditions. This took place at their packing and shipping facility. The workers are demanding safer working conditions and $2-an-hour hazardous duty pay. Dozens of workers have left work due to contracting the COVID-19 virus.

Within a few days, they were joined by hundreds more workers at other Yakima area warehouses, at the Jack Frost Fruit Company in Yakima, the Matson Fruit Company and the Monson Fruit company, both in Selah.

Earlier, in April, the Roche Fruit Company in Yakima closed for deep cleaning after several workers tested positive for the virus. When work resumed, workers asked for extra hazard pay; the company offered an extra $200 a month. Workers walked off the job on May 11th, and after negotiations, the company offered an extra $100 a week, and workers returned to the job.

All these strikes have been wildcat strikes, direct action by the workers themselves, determined to fight for their health, their families, and safe working conditions. In many plants, workers work side by side with no physical distancing, little or no personal protective equipment is being provided by the companies, and workers fear for their lives. Once the strikes started, a Skagit County farmworkers union called Familias Unidas por la Justicia sent organizers to Yakima to help. FUPJ is an independent union affiliated with the Washington State Labor Council.

The companies have publicly claimed that they provide PPE “when available,” have intensified their cleaning efforts, and that they are operating safely. Several companies expressed surprise at the strikes, as not all the plants have confirmed cases yet. However, the companies have engaged in intimidation tactics, with company officials coming out of the plants to take pictures of the workers at picket lines and protests. They have encouraged a few workers to mount counter-protests, and have made it difficult for workers to assemble near the plants. They have also used drones to take pictures of the demonstrators. Workers fear retaliation once the strikes are over.

Some companies also want to attack the strikers as being just interested in more money, but workers point out that if they get sick, the financial burden on their families would be devastating, and that safety, health, and pay issues can’t be separated.

The companies have tried to deflect public concern by pointing to steps they have taken for better safety precautions. But workers report that when inspectors or top company officials come, they are instructed to physically distance, but when the outsiders leave, practices return to “normal.” At some plants, supervisors charged workers $5 each for masks.

In response, workers organized a caravan of cars, covered with signs in Spanish, to visit not only the plants on strike but other fruit packing facilities in the area. There were plans for six more plants to go out on strike starting Memorial Day weekend. There have been workers actions at other plants that have been resolved when companies agreed to meet with committees of workers to address issues. At other plants, negotiations broke down over the hazard pay issue. Several workers at one plant have gone on a hunger strike.

Workers at Allen Brothers have filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the NLRB, alleging that company officials have interrogated workers about the strike activity, threatened them with disciplinary action if they joined the strike, and in one-on-one meetings offered individual workers extra pay and benefits if they would help break the strike.

Yakima County is one of the hotbeds of coronavirus infections in the state, with over 2,600 confirmed cases.


CONTRIBUTOR

Marc Brodine
Marc Brodine

Marc Brodine is Chair of the Washington State CPUSA. A former AFSCME member and local officer, he is currently an artist and guitar player. Marc writes on environmental issues and answers many web site questions. Marc is the author of an extended essay on Marxist philosophy and the environment, titled Dialectics of Climate Change  

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