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Coronavirus, underlying issues drive fruit packing house workers to strike

By Mai Hoang Yakima Herald-Republic

YAKIMA – Rosalinda Gonzalez was almost 22 years old when she started working at Columbia Reach Pack.

Now at age 41, after 19 years with the company, Gonzalez is participating in her first worker strike.

Gonzalez is among the dozens of Yakima Valley fruit packing workers striking over concerns regarding worker safety and conditions during the COVID-19 pandemic.

Each day Gonzalez went to work at the Yakima plant, focused on earning money to support her family, which includes her husband and three sons, ages 19, 16 and 6.

But a paycheck never solved the underlying issue she saw daily at work: line supervisors unwilling to listen to worker concerns.

“I feel the supervisors are mean to people,” she said. “They don’t know how to talk to people. When you ask a question, their only answer is, ‘I don’t know.’ ”

The response hasn’t been enough for the fruit packing workers during the pandemic. For more than two weeks, they have voiced concerns over whether their employers have done enough to protect workers from COVID-19. Those fears have been heightened as they hear about colleagues and family members who have tested positive for the virus.

Since May 7, workers at seven fruit packing houses – Allan Bros., Roche Fruit, Matson Fruit, Frosty Packing, Monson Fruit, Columbia Reach Pack and Hansen Fruit – have gone on strike or protested working conditions. Workers at Monson reached an agreement with company officials Friday.

Managers dispute that worker activity at Roche Fruit was a strike. Strife died down after the company agreed to provide hazard pay. Late last week, there was just one worker at Hansen Fruit striking. Activity has continued at the other packing houses.

Officials at the companies claim they are complying with guidelines and regulations to protect workers from COVID-19. They also say they’re meeting with workers and implementing additional measures in response to concerns, such as distributing more masks and increasing the availability of items such as hand sanitizer and personal spray bottles filled with cleaning solution.

Over time, the strikes have not only been an effort to improve working conditions and pay during the COVID-19 pandemic, but also an opportunity for workers to address long-standing issues.

“Something everyone was waiting for is to speak up about our rights,” said Kathy Mendoza, 28, who has worked at Monson Fruit in Selah for seven years. Mendoza is part of a committee representing the striking workers.

Workers who talked to the Yakima Herald-Republic in the past two weeks highlighted the same issue: a constant undermining of worker concerns by line supervisors.

COVID-19 – and pandemics in general – escalate already existing management issues, said Bob Bussel, director of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon, which provides research and resources for those working in unions and worker advocacy roles.

Now, a supervisor disregarding worker safety during the COVID-19 pandemic isn’t seen as just an attack on the worker, but also on family members they could potentially expose, he said.

“You’re worried about your family, and you’re concerned,” he said. “I think these are powerful drivers of worker militancy and direct action.”

New voices

Labor advocates say this kind of direct action from employees hasn’t been seen in the Yakima Valley in decades, namely since César Chávez, founder of what is now the United Farm Workers, visited the Yakima Valley to help farmworkers advocate for better pay and working conditions during the 1960s, 1970s and 1980s. The most recent of those visits was in 1986, when Chávez led a march from Granger to Yakima to advocate for better pay and immigration reform. A group marched the same route in 2016 to mark the 30th anniversary of the event.

Protests at fruit packing houses could be considered new in the Valley. In the past, such jobs had been considered more ideal than picking apples or tending to orchards, namely because the jobs are year-round and don’t require exposure to outdoor conditions.

Striking workers said they are paid the minimum wage of $13.50 or slightly higher, depending on work experience and what shifts they work.

Workers may earn additional funds during peak harvest periods for items such as cherries and apples. During those periods, it’s typical for employees to work six days a week for 10 to 12 hours each day.

‘We have to fight harder’

Part of the issue is that when employers and others in the tree fruit industry respond to questions regarding their response to COVID-19, it revolves around whether they comply with local and state regulations and guidelines, said Rodrigo F. Rentería-Valencia.

Renterma Rentería-Valencia is an anthropology professor at Central Washington University as well as a member of the Commission on Hispanic Affairs, which helps guide the governor’s office as it forms public policies that impact the Latinx community. He has been documenting the strikes and talking to workers.

While employers may be meeting regulations and rules, workers feel it’s not enough of a response to the extraordinary circumstances employees are enduring, he said.

Valentina Mendoza – not related to Kathy Mendoza – was in constant fear when she was working in the packing line at Allan Bros. in Naches, where she has worked for five years.

“I do feel scared,” she said in Spanish through an interpreter. “I don’t know if we’re working alongside people who are infected.”

She knows co-workers who have tested positive for COVID-19, including her husband, Santiago Mendoza, 46, who is recovering at home. She says her family’s situation has only increased her resolve to keep striking.

“We have to fight harder in this strike and support others still on strike and even those inside (still working),” she said. “Sooner or later, they’re going get sick.”

Given the risk workers take on daily, they want employers to go above and beyond meeting regulations, Rentería-Valencia said.

Hazard – or appreciation – pay, would be one example, he said.

Workers in other essential industries, such as retail, have been paid extra during the pandemic. In agriculture, several companies have offered additional pay, including Tree Top, Washington Fruit and Roche Fruit.

When employers decline to act on certain requests, such as hazard pay, the workers’ perception is that employers believe they are disposable and replaceable, rather than essential, Rentería-Valencia said.

“They feel excluded from direct support” other essential workers receive, he said. “They feel they have been left in normalcy.”

Workers want more than lip service that they’re appreciated, said Bussel of the Labor Education and Research Center at the University of Oregon.

“Workers want to see something real and tangible behind that as well,” he said. “Whether it’s extra attention paid to safety, improved wages, improved conditions, whatever those may be. It’s elevated in a pandemic. It’s elevated even more in a hot spot (for a pandemic).”

And indeed, while the rest of the state sees the number of daily cases falling, Yakima County’s daily cases have increased. Currently, the county has the highest infection rate on the West Coast.

Employers have responded to a lot of the safety-related issues through evaluations of procedures, providing additional PPE and fulfilling specific employee requests for personal cleaning, such as a spray bottle with cleaning area for their work area, said Jon DeVaney, president of the Washington State Tree Fruit Association.

The issue of hazard pay involves a separate negotiation process, he said.

“The discussion of ‘Can you afford to pay more? I would like to be paid more,’ is a separate issue from ‘Is the workplace safe?’ ” DeVaney said.


DeVaney said he’d seen the signs at worker strikes asking for employers to stop workplace retaliation.

Such signs puzzle him, given that fruit packing houses, like any business, must abide by federal laws that prohibit workplace retaliation.

DeVaney said there had been efforts by employers to provide avenues for employees to voice concerns, such as a telephone hotline to make complaints anonymously to a third party.

Employees should feel free to bring up an issue relating to safety, especially now, when employers are constantly tweaking procedures in response to COVID-19, he said.

“It may be a fear, but it shouldn’t be,” DeVaney said.

Just because the law says that workplace retaliation isn’t allowed doesn’t mean that a worker can’t be a victim of retaliation, Bussel said. And many times, a worker may perceive a supervisor has a certain amount of power over them and has been afraid to speak up, he said.

“It’s a bit glib to say that (workers) shouldn’t feel any qualms or reticence about speaking up,” he said. “That overlooks both the power dynamic as well as the position they find themselves in exercising those rights without confidence. Challenging authority is always hard, even in some unionized environments.”

Rentería-Valencia, the Central Washington University professor, said supervisors – or mayordomo/mayordoma as some Latinx workers may refer to them – are considered brokers between line workers and executives, he said.

But as he’s talked to workers, he’s heard of many scenarios of supervisors failing to pass concerns or even discouraging workers from voicing them in the first place, he said. They feel “there is no one representing them,” he said.

Workers also shared stories of supervisors yelling at workers when they’ve made mistakes and reluctance to spend much time helping new workers.

More recently, the issues have been COVID-19-related, such as the refusal to slow down packing lines to enable workers to spread out or expecting workers to maintain the same level of productivity when there are fewer workers.

Kathy Mendoza, the Monson Fruit worker, said that when she or her co-workers have brought up concerns, supervisors disregard them, at best, and at worst belittle them and even make their time at work more unbearable. One common tactic, she said, is to move an employee to a position or area where they would be known to struggle.

Workers feel discouraged from speaking up as a result. They think, “Why bother if I know they’re not going to do anything?’” she said.

Avenue to address concerns

Some of the worker committees have requested a permanent group that would represent line workers.

These strikes have empowered people to speak out, said Kathy Mendoza, the Monson Fruit worker.

Having a workers’ group would provide an avenue for line workers to keep speaking up, she said.

“There’s a difference between you going alone (with a concern) and having a group with you,” she said.

The Yakima Valley packing houses which have had strikes don’t have worker unions. Industry officials have questioned whether the strikes are really a push from organized labor, especially with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworkers union based in Skagit County, and the Washington State Labor Council providing support throughout the strike.

The workers at the packing houses say they are protesting on their own initiative.

Mendoza said her worker committee isn’t at the point of deciding whether to unionize. Ultimately, no action will be taken without the approval of the group.

“We have to agree on this as workers, as a team,” she said.

The spirit of teamwork and solidarity has been a common element in all the worker strikes. Dionisio Carillo, 68, has worked at Columbia Reach Pack for about four years. Before that, he’d worked at various jobs in California and Washington.

He’s never participated in a strike until now. He said he’s protesting not just for fair treatment for himself, but for his co-workers.

“I want to support my co-workers,” he said in Spanish through interpretation from a co-worker. “I want to show I am here.”

DeVaney said he considered the strikes unfortunate, because up until then he felt there was cooperation between industry leaders, labor advocates and other stakeholders on what needed to be done to protect workers while maintaining essential operations, such as fruit packing and shipping. He also felt state agencies had worked to balance the interest of industry officials and labor advocates.

“I hope the long-term impact isn’t an adversarial position between the workforce and growers, which has been the template for fighting other issues in the past,” he said. “(I hope) we can get back to cooperation on ensuring safety and success.”

Short-term sacrifice for long-term gain

As each day goes on, workers have had to remain resilient, especially as setbacks have piled up.

The main one has been a lack of pay. There have been reports of striking employees returning to work simply because they could no longer afford to keep going.

Then there are the daily sacrifices workers have made in their other roles.

Kathy Mendoza admitted that she’s not as involved in her son’s schoolwork as much as she would like. With the hours she’s been putting into the strike, she’s spending less time at home.

But she said she wants to improve working conditions not only for herself but for future generations.

Gonzalez, the Columbia Reach worker, has also spent less time at home.

But her children are supportive. She has encouraged them to get an education so they can get better jobs. Her oldest son is working in a pharmacy, and her high school-aged son will soon participate in the Running Start program, which enables him to take classes at Yakima Valley College while finishing high school.

She wants to show her children that it’s worth speaking up and the importance of making a difference not just for herself but for others, even if there’s no guarantee of a positive result.

“If you never try, you never know what’s going to happen,” she said.

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