The workers at Ostrom Mushroom Farms in Sunnyside, Washington, first reached out to the United Farm Workers of America (UFW) in summer 2020 in the wake of fruit-packing warehouse strikes dotting the Central Washington landscape to address workplace safety amidst the COVID-19 pandemic. A flurry of activity since then, including a wave of firings from January 2021 to January 2022, led to an organizing effort that included a petition signed by employees to form a labor union represented by the UFW in June 2022.
To this day, Ostrom refuses to recognize the unionized farm workers, to the point that the Washington State Attorney General’s Office (AGO) had to step in. In a news release dating back to Aug. 17, 2022, the AGO publicized a civil rights lawsuit against the company for discriminating against domestic farm workers, specifically women. The order sought front and back pay, as well as compensation for workers who were paid less.
According to the suit, the company violated Washington law by “Discriminating on the basis of immigration status by firing and refusing to hire U.S.-based workers, Discriminating against its workers on the basis of sex by firing and refusing to hire female workers, and Retaliating against workers who tried to assert their rights, including through warnings, discipline, and one case of physical assault.” Additionally, the company was accused of abusing the H2A worker program — a program that provides temporary visas for farm workers to work in the United States — as a way to stymie attempts to unionize, effectively boxing out workers.
In subsequent months, workers have continued to organize informational picketing campaigns on both sides of the Cascades, with activity in Sunnyside and Seattle, respectively. An amended complaint filed in December 2022 reiterated the same points and also identified the agricultural investment company, Asellus, which owns Ostrom, as a defendant. This updated complaint alleged that Asellus acquired Ostrom in 2021, installed a new chief executive and raised production quotas for workers while threatening termination if the new metrics were not met.
Most recently, as announced Feb. 15, a Canadian company — Windmill Farms of Ashburn, Ontario — purchased Ostrom. The Canadian firm has continued with the antagonistic stance by allegedly firing the farm’s remaining employees and offering lower pay, noting they were offering “market competitive wages.” It is clear that this meant to continue the process of keeping the farm from properly addressing workers’ grievances.
The workers’ committee continues to push for full recognition. As Ostrom passes from one capitalist interest to another in an effort to defer responsibility, the fact remains that the company must be held accountable. The farm workers who harvest our food are deserving of dignity and community support.
Read more of the Mar. 22-28, 2023 issue.