Fruit packers celebrate gains in strike in Yakima Valley

By Henry Dennison
June 29, 2020

SEATTLE — Workers rallied outside fruit processor Columbia Reach Pack in Yakima, Washington, June 11 to celebrate their strike victory. “The most important thing we won is that the company recognized and signed an agreement with the committee” elected by the workers, Ramón Torres, president of the independent farmworkers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, told strikers. The fruit-packing bosses also agreed to make some improvements in working conditions and for no reprisals against any strikers.

Strikes in the Yakima Valley fruit industry began May 7 when workers walked out at Allan Brothers in Naches and then spread to half a dozen other fruit-packing plants. The actions by mainly immigrant workers in the crowded, high-speed and low-paid plants began as a response to the bosses’ lack of steps to protect workers from coronavirus infection, and quickly expanded to long-standing issues concerning wages, hours, safety and boss harassment.

The workers’ committee at Columbia Reach was elected on the picket line May 14 on the first day of the strike. “The committee will keep on representing workers inside the plant,” Torres said.

“In a lot of places the workers don’t know what to do, or how to defend themselves,” 41-year-old worker Rosa Maria Paniagua said to celebrating picketers. “What we did here set an example.”

Workers committees earlier reached agreements at Matson Fruit, Monson Fruit, both in the nearby town of Selah, and Allan Brothers. Workers on strike at Frosty Packing in Yakima returned to work when they won a new bonus pay program.  “Columbia Reach was the last one,” Torres said.

Not all the workers’ demands were settled in the agreements and the fight on these issues will continue.

“I feel like we have the power to change things,” Rosalinda Gonzalez, a member of the elected committee, told the Yakima Herald-Republic. “If they don’t fulfill their part of the agreement, we can fight back,” Paniagua added.

Leaders of Familias Unidas, which grew out of battles by berry pickers in Washington’s Skagit Valley in 2013, have been in Yakima since the strikes began, helping packinghouse workers organize themselves. They’re staying to work with other packinghouse and orchard workers as the cherry harvest begins.