Washington fruit packers strike over pay, hours, dignity

By Henry Dennison
June 1, 2020

YAKIMA, Wash. — A walkout that began May 7 by workers at Allan Brothers Inc., a fruit processor in Naches, has become a strike wave running through packing plants in this major fruit growing and processing region. 

As of May 16, workers at Columbia Reach Pack, Frosty Packing, and Hansen Fruit in Yakima, and Matson Fruit and Monson Fruit in the town of Selah are also on strike. Fueled by anger over employers’ disdain for health and safety conditions on the job, the strikers have focused on longstanding issues of hours, wages and abuse.

There are a lot of packinghouses in and around the area. There have been fights to try to organize some of them, but so far it has remained a nonunion industry. 

“Allan Brothers said they can’t pay us more because they spent so much on the new warehouse. That’s not our problem,” Shauri Tello, a packing worker, told this Militant worker-correspondent. 

After workers at Allan Brothers struck, they contacted the farmworkers union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Union President Ramón Torres and other members immediately went to join the strikers, working with them to organize themselves, elect strike committees to help lead the walkout, and to draw up concrete demands to present to the company. Many of the strikers have joined the union. 

Not everyone has stayed away from work, and those on strike continue to reach out to those who went back. Strikers distributed flyers May 11 listing the demands of the strike to those who came to work. A number of workers walked out and joined the strike. At midday word came that workers at Roche Fruit Packing in Yakima had walked off the job. Among the chants on the picket line was “No estamos solos.” (“We are not alone.”)

Then word came that the Roche workers had won a $100 a week raise. 

As word spread, workers struck Frosty Packing, Matson Fruit, and Monson Fruit May 13. 

Aura Ramos, who works at Monson and has eight years in the packing industry, explained what lies underneath the strikes. “When the warehouses lose a day of work, even though it isn’t our fault, they want to make up the lost time,” she said. “So basically we do the work of two or three people and they don’t pay us any extra. It’s too much to do the work of those two or three people.

“And it’s difficult because over time it hurts your body. There are lots of people who have worked years in the warehouses whose arms are injured. The work is heavy and it damages your arms,” she said. “This is why we’re fighting. The money is important but also we don’t want them to make us work more than what is necessary or fair. We can’t endure what they’re doing.” 

Issues of workers’ dignity have also been raised. At Allan Brothers workers are demanding the right to use the bathroom without harassment by the boss. At Monson workers raised needing more than one women’s bathroom in a department where 50 women work. 

Workers from all the struck plants organized a car caravan May 14 going from picket line to picket line, starting at 6 a.m. at Allan Brothers. When they got to Monson Fruit they assembled and approved a proposal from the strike committees to make it one single strike with one list of common demands. 

One of their demands is for a guaranteed 40-hour week. Many workers say they’re often scheduled for only 20 hours, but are pushed to produce what they do in 40. 

Workers walked off the job at Hansen Fruit and Columbia Reach Pack the same day. 

The workers are demanding a pay increase; proper sanitation, equipment, and enough room to work in to provide protection against the coronavirus; a minimum of 40 hours a week; recognition of seniority on the job; and no reprisals for joining the strike. 

I joined the caravan carrying a placard with one of the key demands the Socialist Workers Party is raising today: “For workers control of production.” One of the strikers came over and asked if she could carry it, saying it expressed how she felt. She carried it for the rest of the day.

Talks between strike committee members and management have begun, but the picket lines are staying up. 

“This isn’t just for the people out here. This is for all of us,” said Dennis Trimble, who works at Matson Fruit. “Just let us do our job without harassment. We just want to be treated like people.” 

Henry Dennison is on the ballot as the Socialist Workers Party candidate for governor in Washington.