SEATTLE — Over 200 farmworkers, unionists, and students gathered here Aug. 31 to support farmworkers fighting to organize into a union at Windmill Farms, based in Sunnyside. The event was organized by the United Farm Workers union and Students for Farm Workers at the University of Washington. Protesters organized a “human billboard” of signs explaining the fight that stretched along several blocks of a busy downtown street here, and then marched to a nearby park for a lively rally.
Workers at the mushroom-picking facility voted to join the UFW a year ago, when the facility was owned by Ostrom Mushrooms. Workers and the union have been fighting for a contract with better working conditions, and against firings and other retaliation by the bosses.
Nearly 100 farmworkers from Sunnyside joined the protest, as well as UFW President Teresa Romero. Members of the Tacoma and Seattle Education Associations, United Auto Workers, United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000 and several Service Employees International Union locals took part, as well as April Sims, president of the Washington State Labor Council.
“Farmworkers took a day off to come here. They could be fired if bosses find out,” Romero told the rally. “Of the 18 that came forward to organize a union, only five are left. The others have been fired or harassed. When I ask workers what the most important issue is, they tell me, ‘Dignity and respect.’”
Romero said over 100 women have been fired and that the bosses have called immigration officials to deport workers who are trying to organize. “Ostrom sold the company to Windmill, but it’s the same farm, same mushrooms, same managers and foremen.”
“If Windmill Farms makes the mistake of continuing to deny your freedom to unionize, they are going to learn the hard way that the union movement in this state does not give up,” Sims said.
Jose Martinez, one of the fired leaders of the fight, described how initially it was just two workers meeting with the union. Now it’s 150.
“There is strong labor community in Seattle. Everyone should have the right to a union,” Tricia Schroeder, president of Service Employees International Union Local 925, told the Militant. “We pulled together a team from all our locals to come here. There are about 25 of us.”
As a result of pressure from the mushroom workers’ ongoing fight, the Washington state attorney general filed and won a $3.4 million lawsuit against Ostrom. The suit charged the firings by the bosses constituted violations of workers’ right to organize a union, as well as for discrimination against women. From early 2021 to May 2022, when workers protested and pushed back high picking quotas, Ostrom terminated approximately 79% of its domestic pickers and 85% of it female pickers.
To ensure higher quotas were met, the company used the H-2A visa program to hire mostly male temporary workers, who they thought it would be easier to intimidate. “The company told H-2A workers not to talk with us,” Martinez said. “Almost all were indigenous people from Guerrero and Chiapas, and many didn’t speak Spanish.”
The UFW and groups of farmworkers have been visiting Safeway stores across the state, urging them to pressure Windmill farms to recognize the union.
To support the mushroom workers fight, go to https://ufw.org/ostrom/.