Nuñez, a worker at Snokist Growers, said in an interview that workers at the canning company decided they needed a union after their wages were slashed and their jobs were turned over to an employment agency. She had just finished addressing an August 11 farmworkers rally of 250 people in Yakima, Washington, where she and other Snokist workers had come to express their solidarity and win support for their fight.
A week and a half earlier 200 workers at Snokist met in the Martin Luther King Jr. Memorial Park in Yakima to begin an organizing drive with the United Farm Workers union. They have since organized two other meetings, one of more than one hundred and another of several hundred workers.
The union drive was sparked by outrage over the announcement by Snokist at the end of July that some 450 workers were no longer employed by the company and could reapply for their jobs at the Skills Resource Training Center. Snokist is one of the largest fruit canning companies, with four plants in Washington State.
When workers were filling out applications at the private employment agency they found out they would now be making from $1.05 to $3.35 an hour less than before. Nuñez, a fruit packer at Snokist for 16 years, said her pay was cut from $10.12 an hour to $7.50, the standard wage doled out by the employment agency.
The company cans different fruits at different times of the year. Workers said that when they finished with Snokist’s summer cherry-canning operation, they knew nothing of the company’s plans.
"They never told us anything until we called in to find out when we were starting on pears," said Nuñez. "In fact, only a few weeks before, during the cherry canning, I had been given a dollar raise. We aren’t being treated like human beings. A lot of workers in the plant are husband and wife. For some this means $400 less a month for each of them."
Faced with layoffs, most workers filled out the six-page application for work through Skills Resource. The application refers to workers as "contractors," claims Snokist has no responsibility to them, and states that the agency can fire the workers whenever they want.
This latest attack on Snokist workers comes only a few months after the company cut all medical and dental benefits for nearly every one of its employees.
According to the Yakima Herald-Republic, Snokist vice president of marketing and sales Frank McCarthy said the company’s moves would potentially save hundreds of thousands of dollars. McCarthy said the company’s savings on wages were needed due to low prices caused by an "oversupply" of apples and foreign competition. Indicating possible further attacks on the workers he said, "We’re examining every aspect of the business to see how we can operate more efficiently and survive, and save these people’s jobs."
Gonzalo Guillen, who has worked at the company for 14 years, scorned the company’s claims of concern for saving people’s jobs. "Last year when there was talk of a union, the president of the company had meetings to convince people to oppose it. Now that we want to talk to her she won’t even meet with us."
Nuñez said that most workers had no choice but to go back to work at the lower wages, but indicated the fight is not over. "We’re not going to give up," she said. "We know we’re taking a chance joining the union and fighting for our rights, but I believe we’re up to it. We’ll go for it all the way"
Ernest Mailhot is a meat packer and a member of Local 81 of the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 81 in Seattle.
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