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‘Not everything is perfect in the tulip fields.’ Skagit farmworkers go on strike

UPDATED: Wed., March 23, 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 Ysabelle Kempe Bellingham Herald

A group of Skagit County tulip farm workers went on strike Tuesday, March 22, to demand that the Washington Bulb Company improve wages and health and safety protocols.

The strike comes on the eve of the monthlong Skagit Valley Tulip Festival, one of the area’s major tourist attractions that begins April 1.

The strike will not impact the festival, said Brent Roozen, owner of Washington Bulb Company’s RoozenGaarde. In an email to The Bellingham Herald Wednesday afternoon, Roozen said that the strike was “upsetting to both our company and employees” and insisted that many of the accusations made by those on strike don’t accurately reflect the company’s practices.

Washington Bulb Company is the country’s largest tulip-bulb grower and one of Skagit Valley’s largest employers, according to its website. It farms about 2,000 acres of land.

Between 70 and 100 immigrant farmworkers gathered at RoozenGaarde in Mount Vernon to present their demands to management on Wednesday at 8 a.m., said Edgar Franks, political director for Burlington-based farmworker union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The union is representing the farmworkers in negotiations with the company.

Management said they only wanted to speak with the workers, but the workers insisted on union representation, Franks said. As of late Wednesday morning, the farmworkers had established a picket line near one of the company’s daffodil fields.

Farmworkers say they spend long hours laboring invisibly in harsh winter conditions and being exposed to pesticides, according to a Tuesday news release by the union. One of their demands is for the company to provide rain jackets for bad weather and gloves to protect their skin from the irritating liquid that leaks from flowers’ stems when they are cut, Franks said. He said that workers say they have developed sores on their skin from the liquid and are told to bring their own protective gear from home.

The workers also have concerns about how supervisors treat workers and want the company to be more transparent about production bonuses, Franks said.

Roozen with the Washington Bulb Company told The Herald that his team believes only a small number of employees are “actively involved in protesting.” He said that “a few individuals already involved with the labor activists have used a one-time mistake as a pretext to make accusations against our company and management.” He said a staff error was made when calculating the daily performance bonus for two groups of employees – one group was mistakenly overcompensated and the other was under-compensated, Roozen said.

“We have communicated with our employees to resolve this concern and made the decision to compensate all groups at the higher bonus level,” he wrote in an email to The Herald. “We will continue to be committed to addressing any additional concerns our employees might have – and always have been.”

Franks said farmworkers told him that some workers were fired after bringing up concerns to management previously.

“They feel like they are not listened to, so they have to go on strike,” he said. “But this could have been solved easily.”

Roozen said the Washington Bulb Company has never fired anyone for bringing concerns to management and will never do so in the future.

“I will put my life on that,” he wrote to The Herald. “Not only would we never fire an employee for bringing concerns to management and the owners, but we encourage employees to do so.”

It is not the farm workers’ intention to negatively impact the festival, but people should be aware of the struggles endured by those who prune the fields, take care of the lawns and do construction for the company, Franks said.

“The visitors should know not everything is perfect in the tulip fields,” he said. “There are a lot of bad things that are happening in the tulip fields.”

Franks hopes management and farmworkers can resolve the issue quickly and believes workers would be glad to end the strike if the company is open to addressing concerns. If it is not, those on strike will need to have a conversation regarding next steps, he said.

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