Hundreds of current and former mushroom workers and their allies rallied in Seattle on Aug. 31 in support of unionization efforts at the Windmill mushroom farm in Sunnyside, WA.
Supporters held up signs along Mercer Street in support of the farm workers in a “human billboard” style demonstration before marching to Counterbalance Park in Lower Queen Anne.
Organized by the United Farm Workers (UFW), the rally’s speakers called on the community to show solidarity with workers who were unionizing at the mushroom facility. In 2022, the previous owner Ostrom Mushroom Farms fired nearly 80% of its mostly Latina workforce, prompting a gender discrimination lawsuit by the Washington Attorney General that resulted in a $3.4 million payout.
In a statement, UFW said that although a majority of workers voted in favor of union representation, both Ostrom and the new owners Windmill Farms have declined to recognize the union. The mass terminations, the union said, were “in order to have workers with fewer labor rights and family obligations.”
Under the National Labor Relations Act (NLRA), farm workers are exempt from some of the standard protections most workers in the private sector have, including a legal right for workers to unionize irrespective of their employer’s opinion. Farm workers are also excluded from the NLRA’s protections of union organizers against retaliation.
“Unfortunately, farm workers were excluded from the labor laws of the 1930s,” said Teresa Romero, the president of UFW.
UFW said mushroom workers toil under harsh conditions, with steep hourly quotas. An investigation by the Los Angeles Times found that women workers were disciplined or fired for refusing to work 12-hour shifts in order to care for their children or calling out sick.
Some states like California have supplemented federal labor law in order to protect farm workers’ right to organize. While Washington state law does protect the right for farm workers to unionize free of retaliation, it does not compel an employer to recognize or bargain with its workers’ union like in California. Romero said that UFW is supporting efforts in the Washington Legislature to pass similar legislation here, but that it will take time to materialize.
“We have been in a conversation with some legislators so we can pass legislation that would give farm workers the right to organize and labor protections,” Romero said. “As you can imagine, legislation is something that takes time and is an uphill battle. So that’s why we want to continue fighting for these workers. They’re excited, they’re here and they want to keep fighting not only for them — because some of them are not working at the farm anymore — but they know what’s happening in there and they’re fighting for those workers.”
In the meantime, farm worker unions like UFW have resorted to more creative ways to organize campaigns to protect their members’ livelihoods, including these types of demonstrations. UFW is also calling on consumers to boycott Windmill Farms produce and instead buy mushrooms from unionized farms like Monterey Mushrooms and Countryside Mushrooms.
“Farm workers are essential workers. We’ve known it all the time,” Romero said. “I want to make sure that people, consumers — all of us who benefit from their work, their hard work, their sometimes dangerous work — that we understand what they’re going through and that when we go to the store, whatever store we go to, [we] ask them if the products that they’re selling are union [made], that they know that there is no child labor, that there are no abuses. That's what we want the consumers to know.”
Read more of the Sept. 6-12, 2023 issue.