OPINION: What’s it like to be striking for your life in a pandemic? (Seguridad y Salud)

by Johnny Mao and Johnny Fikru

Farmworkers are striking for their families and for everyone in Washington State. Without receiving the necessary protections for COVID-19, they pose a danger to the ones they love — and that is simply unjust. 

Four-hundred and fifty farmworkers at six different fruit packaging plants have decided to protect their lives and health with the only option they have left: strikes, pickets and hunger strikes. They are demanding protections from COVID-19, hazard pay, and an end to retaliation from management. This is all taking place in the county with the highest rate of COVID-19 cases spiking on the West Coast.

Farmworkers striking for COVID-19 are striking for everyone

Representing all corners of the globe, many of the farmworkers striking are Brown and Black people of color. 

At least fourteen workers at Allan Brothers Fruit, based in Naches, have tested positive for COVID-19. While the Governor’s “Stay Home, Stay Healthy” order requires employers to follow COVID-19 safety protections, those protesting are simply demanding that these rules also apply to them. The strikers see their fellow workers being packed into tight spaces, shoulder-to-shoulder production lines, and with few opportunities for social distancing. Due to these working conditions, it becomes inevitable for all workers on the production line to be exposed. As a result, these strikers on the line are not just striking for themselves but for all workers in similar conditions.

As they are not simply co-workers, but friends and family, words of their stories and solidarity quickly spread across work sites. Their message is unified and coordinated. Committees, many of which are led by women, have begun emerging from each striking workplace. With reports of some bargaining at individual sites, workers are demanding concessions at all work sites. These workers recognize this as a systemic public health issue, with protections and hazard pay needed at every workplace across the board. 

Organizers including Familias Unidas por la Justicia and Community 2 Community (C2C) are on the strike lines supporting these courageous workers and streaming live updates daily.

“What these strikes are showing is that apple packing shed workers have the skills and knowledge to organize, and they know what their workplaces need to do to improve health and safety protocols in crowded workspaces,” said Maureen Darras, an organizer with C2C. “Those conditions were unsustainable prior to the pandemic, and they are life-threatening now.” 

Farmworkers are essential

While these farmworkers are deemed essential by the nature of their work, their pay does not reflect how essential they truly are to the well-being of the greater society. Their work, already one of the most hazardous in the U.S., places them at risk to keep grocery shelves stocked. Their demands include hazard pay, to reflect the risks they are taking as essential workers, and a permanent hourly wage increase to a fair wage that extends beyond the timeframe of the pandemic. 

“Their employees are hyper-exposed to this disease on the pack lines,” noted Darras.

As of today, workers are striking at Allan Brothers Fruit (Naches); Hansen Fruit and Cold Storage, Jack Frost Fruit Co. and Columbia Reach Packing (Yakima); and Matson Fruit Co. and Monson Fruit Co. (Selah). Two workers began hunger strikes on May 19 to amplify their call for dignity for farmworkers. To be an agricultural worker and to go on hunger strike should illustrate both the severity and absurdity of the issue. The people who tend to the fruit for all have become compelled to go without food to demand that their supervisors recognize their humanity. 

Allen Brothers workers on a hunger strike that began May 19, 2020. (Photo: Edgar Franks)

As workers joined the strikes, there have been multiple incidents of intimidation and harassment in attempts to deter their efforts. Some of the tactics used include the use of drone surveillance to intimidate workers, management calling police to evict striking workers from company property, hiring of replacement workers, and even a threat from a white male to shoot striking workers.

Columbia Legal Services have represented workers in filing a charge at the National Labor Relations Board against Allan Brothers Fruit for interfering, restraining and coercing employees. This includes disciplining an employee who provided water to employees engaged in work stoppage. Employees have the legal right to raise safety and health concerns to their employers.

Farmworkers have also called upon the Washington State Governor’s Office to assign additional state staff to ensure enforcement of emergency rules for worker safety and a legislative investigation into why farmworkers are treated differently than other workers during this pandemic.

“The strikes are also revealing that the packing sheds where they work were not expecting to be held to the standard of complying with COVID-19 protective measures for their employees — essential workers — during this pandemic,” Darras said.

The fight for safer working conditions amid a pandemic has produced a double emergency for these farmworkers. Walking off their jobs to advocate for fair wages and protections from unsafe working conditions, coupled with the actual ongoing global pandemic has created an unconscionable predicament. “Workers are fearing to lose their jobs. Everyone wants a greater effort for worker safety, to go to the job site, and feel like they haven’t been contaminated from COVID-19,” said Jorge, a worker on the picket line in Naches. “For owners, their money’s on the line with the continuation of this work. Yet for farmworkers, it is their families and lives that are on the line every day this crisis continues.”

Readers interested in supporting the strikers can donate to Familias Unidas por La Justicia. Follow Familias Unidas por la Justicia and Community 2 Community on Facebook to receive updates on the strikes.

Featured image: Washington farmworkers strike for workplace protections during the COVID-19 pandemic. (Photo: Edgar Franks)