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Tulip farmworkers and company sign deal, agree to continued talks after strike

UPDATED: Fri., April 1, 2022

Workers remove petals from tulip plants, which is part of the bulb-producing process, in 2014 in a tulip field near Mount Vernon, Wash.  (Ted S. Warren)
Workers remove petals from tulip plants, which is part of the bulb-producing process, in 2014 in a tulip field near Mount Vernon, Wash. (Ted S. Warren)
By Daisy Zavala Magaña Seattle Times

A committee representing farmworkers who went on strike last week has signed an agreement with the Mount Vernon-based Washington Bulb Co. in which company leaders say they will address workers’ concerns.

The agreement comes on the eve of the monthlong Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, which begins Friday. Each year, the festival brings thousands of people to view the vast daffodil and tulip fields and provides an economic boon to the area.

The elected seven-member worker committee began conversations with Washington Bulb Co. officials last Friday morning after voting to suspend the strike after three days. At that point, company officials promised to discuss the workers’ list of demands.

Signing the document is a milestone for workers who have been advocating for improvements, said farmworker Octavia Santiago Martinez, a member of the elected committee.

The company has agreed to ensure that workers have access to protective gear, including gloves, rain gear, boots, goggles and hydrocortisone cream, said Edgar Franks, political director with Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The independent farmworker union helped workers with the strike and negotiations.

During last week’s three-day strike, workers complained they did not have access to gloves or cream to treat sores caused by the sap daffodils release when they’re cut.

Brent Roozen, of Washington Bulb Co., said that the company will do better at making sure workers have access to gloves and cream, and will work to provide cans of the cream upon request.

“We are happy to agree on the specifics within the document signed and very little discussion was needed to reach an agreement on any topic. We recognize areas that need improvements and will embrace those improvements,” he said in an email.

The company will review all orientation and supervisory trainings so any issues within those processes can be addressed and improved, he said.

Ninety-four employees signed union membership cards with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Franks said.

Company leaders were clear about not retaliating against workers who went on strike and have maintained conversations in “good faith,” Franks said.

Workers will also have access to four portable toilets that are close to working areas so they don’t have to go out of their way to use the bathroom, according to the agreement.

“Washington Bulb Co. is always willing to listen to the critiques, criticisms, concerns, or any other feedback presented by our employees,” Roozen said in a statement. “We recognize there are areas for improvement within the company and hearing each individual’s voice is integral to seeking progressive solutions.”

Company leaders intend to schedule regular meetings with the elected worker committee, to maintain a dialogue to address issues that may arise.

Company leaders also agreed to bump up bonus pay on bunches picked, Franks said. They addressed worker concerns over whole bunches being thrown out if a flower was not of good quality and assured workers that the flowers taken out are replaced and the bunches are still counted, he added.

Workers are paid $14.49 an hour upon hire and on average made $17 with bonus earnings included, Roozen said. He expects the company to provide a “nice (pay) bump” next season, Roozen said in an email, but did not specify the amount.

On top of their hourly wage, workers can earn a bonus if crews hit daily benchmarks when picking stems. Under the new bonus schedule, workers can now earn an additional $1 an hour if each member of a crew picks 4,500 stems a day. For every additional 500 stems a crew averages above 4,500, the bonus jumps an additional 50 cents. Company officials agreed to round up if stem counts are 50 stems shy of a 500-stem level.

Washington Bulb Co. also agreed to try to ensure workers have a guaranteed eight-hour workday as long as weather conditions allow and only work during paid company time, Franks said. Earlier, they had complained about working during breaks or at home to be able to make bonuses.

Roozen denied claims from a former employee who said he was fired after working six consecutive days and not showing up to work on the seventh day. However, Roozen was unable to provide specifics on why the employee was fired.

“We absolutely would never terminate anyone over that,” Roozen said.

Among the workers’ demands was improved paid sick leave. The company said it will better explain its existing policy, which abides by state law, and will also give workers an option to use sick leave or cash out at the end of the season, Franks said.

Both sides agreed that worker complaints over pesticide application and “work environment,” including the muddy conditions in the fields, did not need to be addressed, Roozen said in an email.

The company assured the workers it will continue to follow state and federal rules for pesticides and also make sure employees who become ill from exposure are fairly compensated, Franks said.

Though the agreement does not include a no-strike clause, workers agreed to continue working as long as the agreements are respected, Franks said.

Company leaders were willing to hear directly from the workers and were open to suggestions, Franks said, adding that in his experience, companies usually do all they can to not listen, avoid accountability or meet through a third party.

“It’s a very good sign that they want to improve the company,” he said. “Hopefully this becomes something that can last for a long time.”

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