This month began with a celebration of worker power and solidarity in the face of daunting odds. An emergent struggle has emerged over reopening Washington businesses. The irony is that this clamoring over “state overreach” with Gov. Jay Inslee’s orders had neglected to include the voices of those impacted most, Washington state’s farm workers.
The COVID-19 pandemic has disproportionately hit the Latinx community hard. As Danny Westneat of The Seattle Times noted in a recent column, COVID clusters have hit Yakima County’s agricultural and fruit packing plants. As of this past week, Yakima County had the highest rate of COVID-19 cases per capita on the entire West Coast, a figure noted to being three times higher than that of King County.
On May 7, workers at the Allen Bros Fruit packing warehouse in Naches, Washington, went on strike over inadequate safety precautions, lack of transparency over COVID-19 infections and lack of hazard pay. Many had only heard of coworkers infected by way of word of mouth, with little information coming from their employer. In subsequent days, six other warehouses went on strike, citing similar conditions.
Workers are also seeking protections from retaliation and being replaced for bringing these concerns forward. They have met resistance from employers, as well as malicious harassment and threats of shootings from racist community members.
As talks stalled, some workers went on hunger strike at Allen Bros. In an interview with Northwest Public Radio, a hunger striker noted, “These are our lives, not the lives of our bosses, not the lives of the government. … We’re here exposing ourselves.” He further said, “If we’re ‘essential,’ why aren’t they giving us the pay we’re asking for? Are their apples worth more than our lives?”
Most of these workers earn minimum wage, regardless of the amount of time worked at these warehouses. Those who feel ill do not report symptoms because taking two weeks off from work is a luxury they can’t afford as they are also not provided medical insurance, despite essential worker designation. In these workplaces, enforcement of workplace protections were so lax that both the United Farm Workers Union and Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a local union based in Skagit County, sued Washington state in April as a way of securing mandatory and enforceable rules for workplace safety.
It is our collective responsibility to support and stand with our essential and excluded workers who bear the brunt of this pandemic. They illustrate that we cannot simply become fodder for business interests who line their pockets with no regard to health concern and human dignity and wish to place us as offerings on the sacrificial altar to capitalist enterprise.
¡Viva la Huelga!
Read more in the May 27 - June 2, 2020 issue.