By STEVE LEIGH
Steve Leigh is a member of the Seattle Revolutionary Socialists and the Revolutionary Socialist Network.
YAKIMA VALLEY, Wash., May 21—The U.S. is divided. The vast majority opposes early “re-opening” of the economy before workplaces are safe. A small right-wing minority waves rifles and demands that its freedom to get a haircut is more important than the lives of workers. They are backed by billionaires such as Koch industries and the families of Education Secretary Betsy Devos as well as the Sociopath in Chief. These billionaires only care about increasing their already obscene wealth—workers lives be damned.
The workers who risk death on the front lines are speaking out for their right to survive. Workers at Amazon, Instacart, Whole Foods, and meatpacking plants, among others, have struck for health and safety. These workers have won some of their demands, including hazard pay. Many companies, including Kroger and Amazon, are now trying to get away with ending that hazard pay. They apparently feel the crisis is over, even as the U.S. death toll passes 93,000.
In the Yakima Valley of central Washington, over 300 workers in fruit-packing sheds went on strike on May 7. They are demanding safety on the job and hazard pay. Many workers are immigrants from Mexico, but the workforce includes a variety of nationalities and racial and ethnic groups and includes local residents. Before the strike, the workers generally made the minimum wage, which is $13.50 per hour in Washington State.
The working conditions are ideal for the spread of COVID. Workers stand side by side, and the disease can spread quickly. “Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19,” Augustin Lopez, a striker at Allan Brothers, told Capital and Main.
Though the companies claim they are providing Personal Protective Equipment (PPE), the workers feel it has been inadequate and want social distancing to stop the spread. This would cut production and lower profits for the companies, even if it would save lives. The companies so far refuse, putting profit before human life.
Lopez went on to say, “We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?” He also said that the company didn’t clean and disinfect the plant or even stop production when workers got sick. Another worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, “They are not doing what they’re saying they’re doing.”
Besides health and safety, the workers want hazard pay. They are demanding $100 a week on top of their regular pay. This is a very reasonable demand. If achieved permanently, their pay would still be less than the minimum wage in Seattle!
They also want negotiations now and on a regular basis with the companies. Whether this would result in union representation is still to be decided.
On May 19, strikers Maribel Medina and Cesar Traverso began a hunger strike. Strikers and supporters held a small ceremony honoring the hunger strikers with the reading of a statement by United Farm Workers founder Cesar Chavez.
The workers are getting pushback from the companies and racists. The companies have called the sheriff on the workers and are trying to force them off their property. One man came to a picket line on May 14 and threatened to shoot the workers. He was finally arrested for malicious harassment though no charges have yet been filed. He has a history of threatening Hispanic people, including firing a gun at three Hispanic men last year.
In spite of this push back, the workers have gotten tremendous community support locally and from across the state. The main group organizing support is Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farm-worker union based 60 miles north of Seattle. They have raised money for food, housing and organizing and have sent in-person support. The workers have been unorganized, so they did not have a regular strike fund. Since they were making only the minimum wage, financial support is crucial!
Familias Unidas por la Justicia is in the midst of negotiating a new contract with Sakuma Brothers farms in the Skagit Valley, north of Seattle. It established itself through a series of strikes and an ongoing boycott (see: https://socialistworker.org/2017/06/20/sakuma-workers-win-their-first-contract).
Morale on the Yakima Valley picket lines is mostly good. Only a couple of workers have gone back to work in the face of extreme poverty. Though the companies have gone to temporary agencies to obtain scabs, they have been largely unsuccessful. The workers are looking into legal action to prevent scabbing.
The loss of production and community pressure has made an impact. Early on, Allan Brothers offered $1 per hour in hazard pay. This was not enough, and the workers stayed on strike. As of May 21, two companies have offered to negotiate, Matson and Monson, while Columbia Reach is on the fence.
More pressure from the public, more financial support, and continued loss of production can help the workers achieve their goals. These strikes are one small but important step in winning a workers’ solution to the COVID crisis. Please generously support these strikers! Here is what you can do:
Donate money to the Familias Unidas por la Justicia website—
Call management and urge them to negotiate, and not to retaliate against striking workers:
Allan Bros. Fruit in Naches, Wash. (509) 653-2625
Hansen Fruit in Yakima, Wash. (509) 457-4153
Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, Wash. (509) 248-5231
Matson Fruit Co. in Selah, Wash. (509) 697-7100
Monson Fruit Co. in Selah, Wash. (509) 697-9175
Columbia Reach in Yakima, Wash. (509) 457-8001
Follow the strike at: https://www.facebook.com/pg/FamiliasUnidas/posts/?ref=page_internal