Packers Vote On Whether To Join Union Stakes High For Tree-Fruit Workers Throughout State

In separate elections today in Yakima and Wenatchee, nearly 900 apple packing workers will vote on whether they want Teamsters Union representation.

The future of tree-fruit workers throughout the state could hinge on whether a majority of those voting at two of the largest packing plants in Central Washington decide to join the Teamsters. Currently no tree-fruit workers have union representation.

The elections come after a twoyear Teamster campaign in both areas and a battle for worker support between the union and the employers, Stemilt Growers Inc. in Wenatchee and Washington Fruit and Produce in Yakima. Each election is independent of the other. Stemilt has about 550 apple packers and Washington Fruit about 300 eligible to vote.

“This is a day that folks have looked forward to for a long time,” said Teamster spokesman Patrick Lacefield. “We want to bring the apple industry into the modern world in terms of wages, benefits, seniority and the rest.”

Lacefield said the union and the workers were eager for the elections.

“A lot of them (apple packing workers) have wanted these changes a long time,” he said. “They haven’t felt it was possible until now.”

Industry spokesman Mike Gempler of the Washington Growers League in Yakima said the packing plant owners also are relieved the battle is coming to a head.

“The pressure tactics and disparaging of the industry hurt everyone, including the employees,” he said. “Now it’s down to the real core issue, which is what the employees think.”

The union picked its campaign targets carefully, getting the largest possible base for dues and revenue with these two companies, Gempler said. It has been a long battle. The union settled into both cities, held meetings, rallies, public protests, and filed charges of unfair labor practices against both companies. The companies responded by posting letters on walls and windows throughout the warehouses and meeting with employees to deny union claims.

Earlier this week the Teamsters filed an unfair labor practice charge against Stemilt with the National Labor Relations Board, accusing the packing plant of laying off employees to intimidate other workers and of hiring a union-busting consultant who told workers the plant would close if they voted for the union.

The consultant was hired to counter the misinformation being spread by the union, Gempler said.

“It’s a pretty obvious need when you have quite a few pro (union) organizers brought in by the Teamsters that are visiting employees at home and talking to them whenever they can,” he said. “You need to talk about the workplace, how the union has operated in other places and what the benefits and policies of the employer really are.”

The elections will occur on-site at the plants, ending at 6 p.m. in Yakima and 9:30 p.m. in Wenatchee. Results may be available late Thursday evening.

The workers’ decisions could have repercussions for Washington’s apple industry.

“We’re in touch with dozens of other warehouses who are sort of waiting their turn,” Lacefield said. “Both the owners and the workers are watching this pretty carefully.”

, DataTimes

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