Tuesday, June 2, 2020


By David Bacon
Labornotes, 6/2/20

 Strikers at Allan Brothers Fruit. (Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx)

Thirty four workers at the apple packing shed that sparked a wave of strikes in central Washington went back to work on Monday with a written agreement recognizing their workers' committee, Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia (Workers United for Justice). Of the 115 workers at Allan Brothers who walked out May 7, the 34 stayed out for the full 22 days, during which hundreds of other workers struck at six additional sheds in the area.

According to Agustin Lopez, a leader of the movement who's worked in the valley since the mid-1980s, "The most important thing to us is that the company is recognizing our committee as the representative of all the workers. Under the agreement we will continue negotiating for salary increases, better working conditions, and health protections. The agreement means that our rights as workers are respected."

The shed strike wave was touched off by the impact of the coronavirus on the hundreds of people who labor sorting fruit in Yakima Valley's huge packinghouses.  While their numbers are smaller than the huge workforce of thousands who pick the fruit in the summer and fall, the shed workforce occupies a strategic place in this system of agricultural production. The virus has spread more widely here than in any other county on the Pacific Coast, with an infection rate of about 500 per 100,000. As of June 1 Yakima County had 3,891 COVID-19 cases and 90 deaths.  Twenty-four percent of people tested have been infected, and the local hospital system is at capacity with few beds available.

"The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus," Lopez explained at the start of the conflict. "Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19."

During harvest time, trucks from the orchards haul loads of apples and cherries picked by thousands of farmworkers, laboring for the big growers of the Yakima Valley.  After the fruit is cooled and stored, orders from the grocery chains are filled by workers, mostly women, standing shoulder-to-shoulder in front of fast-moving conveyor belts.  As apples and cherries sweep past, they sort it and send it on to other workers who wash and pack it, and eventually load it onto trucks.  By the time it appears on the shelves of supermarkets around the country, the fruit has passed through many working hands.

Packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, and most of the sorting jobs on the lines are done by women.  Their families make up the working-class backbone of the small towns of Yakima Valley.  Most have lived here for years.  Jobs in the sheds pay minimum wage, but they're are a step up from the fields because they offer year-round work at 40 hours per week.

While their numbers are smaller than the huge workforce of thousands who pick the fruit in the summer and fall, the shed workforce occupies a strategic place in this system of agricultural production.


When the workers stopped work at Allan Brothers, demanding better safety precautions and $2/hour in hazard pay, they reached out to Dulce Gutierrez, who represents the Washington Labor Council in the Yakima Valley. Gutierrez in turn contacted Washington State's new union for farmworkers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), at its office in Burlington on the coast. Ramon Torres, FUJ president, and Edgar Franks, political director, went to Yakima, where they've spent the last month supporting the strikers.

The first company to settle was the Roche Fruit Company, after a lunchtime walkout, bolstered by the presence of FUJ organizers, got the owners to increase a hazard pay offer of $200 per month to $100 per week. Strikes then followed at Jack Frost Co., Matson Fruit Co., Monson Fruit Co., Hanson Fruit Co., and Columbia Reach Pack.

To protect workers' organizing rights, Columbia Legal Services and FUJ's lawyer, Kathy Barnard from the labor law firm of Barnard Iglitzin & Lavitt, filed unfair labor practice charges against Allan Brothers. The workers' committee charged that managers interrogated workers about their strike activity, threatened them with discipline if they joined the strike, increased wages for non-strikers in an effort to buy their loyalty, and disciplined an employee who brought water to the picketers.  (The recognition agreement did not include an agreement by the workers to drop the charges.)

The company barred strikers' vehicles from its parking lot, but the COVID-distanced picket line at Allan Brothers held up even under threats. Sheriff deputies arrested one man who told strikers that he planned to return with a gun and shoot them. In response, two workers, Maribel Medina and Cesar Traverso, began a hunger strike on May 19, after reading Cesar Chavez's "Farmworkers' Prayer."


When growers proved recalcitrant despite the pressure, workers increased it by going to the state capitol in Olympia on May 26. There they delivered 200 complaints against Allan Brothers to the  Department of Labor and Industries, and held a noisy rally outside the home of Democratic Governor Jay Inslee. "The companies thought they could contain this," Franks explained, "but it put a lot of pressure on them and made the strike a statewide issue."

One worker, Julietta Pulido Montejano, from Columbia Reach Pack, told state officials, "We are on strike demanding protections from COVID 19. We want the company to respect social distancing, and to provide us with daily masks. We want to be able to take care of ourselves so we can go back to our families and not get them sick." Thirty-one workers at Columbia Reach Pack have tested positive for the virus.


On May 22 the companies began to seek agreement, when the owner of Monson Fruit signed a written recognition of the workers' committee, providing better health protections against the virus and $1/hour in hazard pay. Workers there then returned to work. Workers also went back at Jack Frost Co. with a promise of an increase they have yet to receive, but without a written agreement.

At Matson Fruit the workers' committee was presented with a written agreement. "But when they saw it set up a company union," Franks said, "they rejected it, and they're still on strike and talking." At Columbia Reach Pack the company seems unwilling to negotiate, workers charge, and over 50 remain on strike.

At Allan Brothers, while the agreement was signed and workers went back to work, committee members acknowledge that the conflict has not really ended. "Our fight continues," said one committee member, Romina Medina. "But this agreement shows that we can still make important achievements after 22 days without working, without money and enduring intimidation, because we did not give up."

At Allan Brothers the Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia committee accepted the $1/hour wage increase offered by the company, and that had been accepted at Monson Fruit.  That
$1/hour raise expires at the end of July, when the company has agreed to negotiate over wages.  Agustin Lopez said, "We are sure that we will achieve all our demands, because we will return with strength to the negotiating table then."

Torres believes that workers learned enough about collective action that they will be prepared to fight when the day comes. "It had a big impact on them," he says, "since it was the first time they'd done anything like this. They are building a base, and learning how to organize collective action to fight inside the workplace."

Gutierrez says that winning health protections inside the sheds is a critical victory, given the dangers of the coronavirus: "There's been progress made at all the warehouses with sanitation and safety. That is already a victory for every huelga [strike]."


The strikes are partly a product of political changes sweeping central Washington. Gutierrrez herself ran on a slate of progressive candidates who gained a majority on the Yakima City Council in 2015. She won 84 percent of the vote and became the first Latina elected to the body. That election, in turn, was the result of a voting rights suit that overturned Yakima's old citywide election system and ended decades of grower control of it.

Nevertheless, apple shed workers still confront an entrenched anti-union industry. Its biggest players, Stemilt Fruit Co. and Zirkle Fruit Co., bring thousands of H-2A guest workers into Washington every year for the apple harvest in late summer and the fall. They have a long history of fighting unions and dominate the agricultural labor policies of the state government, even in Democratic administrations.

Longtime farmworker organizer Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of the organization Community to Community, cautions, "This country gets its food supply on the backs of people who these companies treat as expendable. That hasn't changed at all.



OAKLAND, CA - 31MAY20 - Thousands of people participate in a caravan of over 2000 cars from the Port of Oakland, to protest the police murder of George Floyd in Minneapolis, and African American and people of color killed by police.

To see a full set of photos, click here:  https://www.flickr.com/photos/56646659@N05/albums/72157714533842187

Wednesday, May 20, 2020


By David Bacon
Capital & Main, 5/21/20

A room in a barracks for H-2A workers in Central Washington

On March 12 an H-2A visa guest worker living in a Stemilt Growers barracks in Mattawa, Washington, began to cough.  He called a hotline, was tested and found out he had COVID-19.  He and five of his coworkers were then kept in the barracks for the next two weeks.

A month later three Stemilt H-2A workers in a barracks in East Wenatchee began to cough too.  Before their tests even came back, three more started coughing.  Soon they and their roommates were all in quarantine.  Doctor Peter Rutherford of the Confluence Health Clinic called Stemilt and suggested that they test all 63 workers in the barracks.  Thirty-eight tested positive.  Then some of those workers who'd tested negative began to test positive too.

Since the H-2A workers infected in the Stemilt barracks arrived in February, and didn't manifest symptoms until March and April, they must have contracted the virus in the U.S.  Guest workers, therefore, are getting infected once they arrive. 

The novel coronavirus continues to spread throughout Central Washington.  By mid-May rural Yakima County had 1,203 cases - 122 reported on May 15 alone - and 47 people had died. The county has the highest rate of COVID-19 cases on the West Coast - 455 cases per 100,000 residents. For over a week now, hundreds of workers in the same area have been walking out of the apple packing sheds to demand better protections and more money for working in a situation where they may be exposed.  Two have now begun a hunger strike.

"Workers are trying to call attention to the danger to the whole community," says Rosalinda Guillen a longtime farmworker organizer and director of the advocacy group Community to Community. Meanwhile, thousands more H-2A guest workers are scheduled to arrive in the area, first for the cherry harvest and then to pick apples.

A fence topped with barb wire surrounds barracks buildings for H-2A workers in Central Washington.

H-2A workers (named for the visa program through which they enter the country) are recruited to work in the U.S. on temporary contracts; they can only work for the employer that recruits them, and must leave once the work is done. 

For the last decade prefab barracks have been springing up in the middle of Washington's blossoming apple trees, in orchards often miles from the nearest town. Inside, H-2A workers usually sleep in bunk beds, four to a room, and cook their meals in a common kitchen. Some barracks are ringed by a chain link fence topped by barbed wire, while others have no barriers. If workers want to go into town to buy groceries or to a clinic, they depend on the grower to provide transportation.

The fate of thousands of these workers is at stake in a regulation handed down last week by Washington state's departments of Health and of Labor and Industries that permits housing conditions that could cause the virus to spread rapidly.  Sleeping in bunk beds in dormitories, according to these state authorities, is an acceptable risk.  Yet according to Chelan-Douglas Health District Administrator Barry Kling, farmworkers are more vulnerable to getting COVID-19 because they live in these very close quarters.  "The lives of these workers are being sacrificed for the profit of growers," Guillen charges.

Washington State ignores the science

The barracks for Stemilt's infected workers, like those housing thousands of others, are divided into rooms around a common living and kitchen area.  Four workers live in each room, sleeping in two bunk beds.  Stemilt says that it has 90 such dormitory units in central Washington, with 1,677 beds.  Half are bunk beds. 

Maintaining physical separation, especially in labor camps, "will be impossible under conditions H-2A workers typically experience in the United States," concludes a report in April by the Centro de los Derechos del Migrante (CDM -- the Migrant Rights Center).  There is no testing for H-2A workers as they enter the country, and until the infected group was found in Washington, there was no testing for them here either. 

An H-2A farmworker outside the barracks.

According to Drs. Anjum Hajat and Catherine Karr, two leading epidemiologists at the University of Washington, "People living in congregate housing such as the typical farmworker housing ... are at unique risk for the spread of COVID-19 because they are consistently in close contact with others ... crowding increases the risk of transmission of influenza and similar illnesses.  If individual rooms are impractical, the number of farmworkers per room should be reduced and beds should be separated by 6 feet.  Bunk beds that cannot meet this standard should be disallowed."

Washington's state agencies decided to ignore Hajat and Karr's testimony, however.  In contrast, the same scientific analysis was the basis for a decision by Oregon's Occupational Safety and Health Administration banning bunk beds.  Its regulation issued in May tells employers:  "Do not allow the use of double bunk beds by unrelated individuals," and "beds and cots must be spaced at least six (6) feet apart between frames in all directions."

Oregon authorities resisted pressure from employers to change the rule, but after a Farm Bureau survey of 323 growers claimed that it would result in losing housing for 5,000 farmworkers, its implementation was delayed until June 1. 

Oregon, however, isn't even among the top 10 states importing H-2A workers. California growers last year were certified to fill 23,321 farm labor jobs with H-2A recruits, yet no agency keeps track of the number of workers sleeping in bunk beds less than six feet apart.  How their health has been impacted, therefore, is basically unknown.

Washington's growers, however, have become much more dependent than California's on bringing in H-2A workers. Last year employers estimated that 65,358 people were employed picking apples in Washington, making it by far the largest apple-producing state in the U.S.  Its growers were certified for 26,226 H-2A workers.  The vast majority worked in apples - as much as a third of the workforce.  One company alone, Zirkle Fruit Company, was certified for 3,400 workers, while Stemilt was certified for 1,517.

A sign advertises the services of a contractor in Central Washington who specializes in building barracks for H-2A workers

The state's new rule for housing those workers says "Both beds of bunk beds may be used," for workers in a "group shelter," consisting of 15 or fewer workers who live, work and travel to and from the fields together.  Most Washington State growers would have little trouble meeting this requirement, since their barracks arrangement normally groups four bedrooms in the same pod.  Stemilt also has vans that normally hold 14 people, conveniently almost the same number as in the bed requirement.  A work crew of 14 to 15 workers would not be unusual.

Who benefits from the new regulation

By framing the bunk bed requirement in this way, Washington’s Department of Health effectively told growers that they did not have to cut the number of workers in each bedroom, and in each dormitory, in half.  The rules of the H-2A program require growers to provide housing.  If the number of workers safely housed in each dormitory were halved, growers would have two options.  They could build or rent more housing, which would be an additional cost.  Stemilt, with 850 bunk beds, would have to find additional housing for over 400 workers, and Zirkle perhaps even a thousand.

Dan Fazio, head of the Washington Farm Labor Association (WAFLA), one of the largest H-2A contractors in the U.S., called restrictions on beds to keep workers safely separated "catastrophic" and "a political stunt by unions and contingency-fee lawyers." (Attempts to reach Fazio and other grower representatives for comments for this story  were unsuccessful.)

Alternatively, growers could bring fewer H-2A workers to the U.S., and instead hire more workers either locally, or attract workers living in other parts of the country.  This is what growers did until the H-2A program began to expand rapidly 10 years ago.  In 2010 they were certified for only 2,981 guest workers.  "Farm workers living in California and other states knew there were jobs here, and they'd come," explains Ramon Torres, president of Washington's new farm labor union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia.  "Most of them had been doing this for many years.  But when growers started hiring H-2A workers, they stopped coming.  They couldn't spend hundreds of dollars to get here, and then find out that the jobs were already filled."

If the number of H-2A workers were cut in half because of the bunk bed requirement, however, Fazio and WAFLA would lose money, since their income is based on the number of workers they supply to growers.  Last year WAFLA brought 12,000 H-2A workers to Washington, charging growers for each worker (although it doesn't disclose publicly how much).

A group of H-2A workers in the kitchen in their barracks in Central Washington

WAFLA has made the H-2A program very attractive, helping to find contractors to build barracks, taking care of paperwork required for government certification and even pushing for lower wages.  In the apple harvest most workers are paid a piece rate that used to reach the equivalent of $18 to $20 hourly.  In 2018 WAFLA asked the state Employment Security Department (ESD) and the U.S. Department of Labor to eliminate any standard for piece rates for H-2A workers, effectively slashing wages by up to $6 per hour.  The ESD and DoL agreed.  Fazio boasted, “This is a huge win and saved the apple industry millions.” 

Many of the growers' H-2A barracks were financed with Washington state funds that are allocated for building farmworker housing.  Daniel Ford at Columbia Legal Aid, Washington's legal service organization for farm workers, protested to the state Department of Commerce that growers shouldn't be allowed to use public funds, since the state's own surveys showed that 10 percent of farm workers who are Washington residents were living outdoors in a car or in a tent, and 20 percent were living in garages, shacks, or “in places not intended to serve as bedrooms.”  The department, however, refused to bar growers from using state subsidies to house H-2A workers.

Immigration status makes H-2A workers vulnerable

One 2017 case convinced many farm worker advocates that the state had no enthusiasm for protecting the welfare of H-2A workers.  Honesto Silva, brought from Mexico to harvest blueberries, collapsed in a field belonging to Sarbanand Farms near the Canadian border, and later died.  According to a suit filed by Columbia Legal Services against Sarbanand Farms, Nidia Perez, who supervised workers on behalf of the company's recruiter, told them that they had to work “unless they were on their death bed.”  Yet the Department of Labor and Industries announced that Silva had died of natural causes, and that the company was not responsible. Labor and Industries fined Sarbanand Farms $149,800 for not providing breaks and meal periods, and a local judge even cut that in half. 

Unions and worker advocates charge that the immigration status of H-2A workers makes it difficult and risky for them to complain about conditions in the barracks or at work that would expose them to the virus.  If an H-2A worker is fired for complaining or protesting, they lose their visa status and have to leave the country immediately, at their own expense.  This took place at Sarbanand Farms, where 70 workers protested the death of Honesto Silva.  They were fired, thrown off the company property, and had to leave the U.S.

Guest workers who complain are often blacklisted, and denied jobs for the following season.  One large recruiter, Consular Services Inc. (CSI), a company closely associated with WAFLA, brings more than 20,000 workers to the U.S. every year.  It has them sign a pledge that authorizes a blacklist: "I understand that if I don't follow the rules at work, in housing or conduct, or my productivity on the job isn't adequate, the boss has the right to fire me and I will lose all the benefit of my work visa, I will have to go back to Mexico, and the boss will report me to the authorities.  This will obviously affect my ability to return legally to the United States in the future."

The gated and guarded entrance to the barracks in San Diego belonging to grower Harry Singh.

The Centro de los Derechos del Migrante report casts doubt that the bunk bed regulation proposed by Washington state’s Department of Health, even with its weakened protection, can be adequately enforced.  "The problem with protecting workers merely by promulgating regulations," it emphasizes, "is that regulations cannot overcome the profound power imbalance between employer and worker under the H-2A program." 

That vulnerability, however, makes immigrant labor attractive to employers like Stemilt.  Before employing H-2A workers, the company employed others whose immigration status made them easy to pressure.  In the late 1990s many of its employees tried to join the Teamsters Union, which lost an election to represent them in 1998.  One worker testified to the National Labor Relations Board that she worked without legal immigration papers, with the full knowledge of the company, until the union organizing began.  "Before we started organizing Stemilt didn't mind if we didn't have papers.  It is only now that we have started organizing that they have started looking for problems with people's papers ... and it is only now that they have started threatening us with INS raids ... being deported is a very powerful threat." 

Fear rose a year later when 562 apple shed workers throughout Yakima Valley were fired for lacking legal immigration status.  The immigration-related threats eventually led to the invalidation of the election lost by the union, but Stemilt never had to sign a contract and remains union-free to this day. 

Federal government protects growers, so states must act

In the spring of 2019 Community2Community, Familias Unidas por la Justicia and other farm worker advocates convinced the Washington State legislature to pass a bill to force state agencies to require protections for H-2A workers.  The bill, SB 5438, "Concerning the H-2A Temporary Agricultural Program," was signed by Democratic Gov. Jay Inslee.  It funded an oversight office and advisory committee to monitor labor, housing, and health and safety requirements for farms using the H2A program.  It also required employers to advertise open jobs to local workers.   Representatives from Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the United Farm Workers, legal and community advocates, and representatives from corporate agriculture were appointed to the committee.

When the coronavirus crisis began in early 2020, worker advocates asked the Department of Labor and Industries to issue regulations to guarantee the safety of the H-2A workers.  Washington state, however, only issued "guidelines" that were not legally enforceable.  Familias Unidas por la Justicia, Community to Community, the United Farm Workers, Columbia Legal Aid and the Northwest Justice Project then filed suit against the state, demanding enforceable regulations.

Barred windows on the barracks for H-2A workers in Santa Maria.

Skagit Superior Court Judge Dave Needy gave the state a deadline of May 14 to answer the suit, and the Department of Health finally issued the emergency regulation permitting bunk beds the day before the deadline.  The unions sharply criticized the new regulation.  Ramon Torres, from Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said, "We do not agree with this.  They are treating us as disposable, as just cheap labor."  Erik Nicholson, vice-president of the United Farm Workers, said, "We are disappointed that the rules remain ambiguous and don't provide the scope of protections that farmworkers living in these camps need to protect themselves from the COVID-19 virus."

The Washington court decision will have an enormous impact, not just on the state's apple pickers, but on farmworkers nationally, because of the huge expansion of the H-2A program in recent years.  Last year growers were certified to fill a quarter of a million farm labor jobs, and the Trump administration seeks to make the program as accessible and inexpensive for growers as possible. 

Federal enforcement of protections for H-2A workers is almost nonexistent.  The CDM report found that every worker it surveyed reported violations of labor rights and contracts.  Nevertheless, of 11,472 employers using the H-2A program, last year the U.S. Department of Labor only filed cases against 431 (3.73 percent), and of them only 26 (0.25 percent) were temporarily barred from recruiting.  "It's deeply concerning," Nicholson said, "that the federal government has been completely absent in ensuring that the essential women and men who harvest our food are protected."

States have had to step in.  California adopted regulations last year for H-2A housing, barring the use of public funds to build barracks.  Washington State passed its law setting up a board to review standards and practices for H-2A recruitment.  But the bunk bed ruling effectively makes Washington's law toothless and leaves H-2A workers exposed to the virus. 

California's anti-barracks law would likely be the next one targeted by those growers intent on keeping labor costs low.  They've already been promised help by the Trump administration, including a promise on a Federal level to cut the legally required H-2A wages.  WAFLA's Dan Fazio predicts, "If that happens, if it's lowered to the state minimum wage, growers will bring [more] workers up."  The mandated wage in Washington for H-2A workers would be cut by $2.33 per hour under Trump's proposal.

This trailer in Santa Maria was certified by the U.S. Department of Labor as the housing for H-2A workers

In a Memorandum of Understanding on May 19 the US Department of Agriculture and the Food and Drug Administration warned that even regulations like the bunk bed ruling might be too much for the Trump administration.   The agencies, they said, may invoke the Defense Production Act to override any state actions that cause “food resource facility closures or harvesting disruption [that] could threaten the continued functioning of the national food supply chain.”

Bruce Goldstein, President of Farmworker Justice, a farmworker advocate in Washington DC, called the MOU a “cold-blooded approach [to] the potential for widespread illness and death of farmworkers.”  He added, “The  Administration is claiming the right to prohibit states and local governments from requiring workplace safety precautions that might reduce the food supply while saving the lives of people needed in the food system.”

Protecting growers' profits at the expense of the lives, health and wages of farmworkers has been the historical norm. But in the current COVID-19 crisis, calling farmworkers "essential " acknowledges not just that the country depends on their labor to eat.  It also acknowledges that thousands of people go into the fields every day risking the virus.  Farmworkers wonder if they then should be treated as vulnerable guinea pigs.

"The logic of declaring bunk beds acceptable is that some degree of infection and some deaths will happen, and that this is an acceptable risk that must be taken to protect the profits of these growers and this industry," Rosalinda Guillen charges.  "And what makes it acceptable?  Those getting sick, and who may die, are poor brown people, and the families and communities who will mourn them live in another country two thousand miles away."

The old barracks that were used in the 1950s to house braceros in Blythe, in conditions similar to those of H-2A workers

In a May Day march in Yakima, Washington, farmworkers and native people protest the exploitation of farm workers

Thursday, May 14, 2020


By David Bacon
Capital & Main, 5/14/2020

Strikers at Allan Brothers Fruit. (Photo by Xolotl Edgar Franx)

Demands for safer working conditions and extra hourly hazard pay during the pandemic are powering a strike wave in the Yakima Valley.

This week the COVID-related strike in Washington state's Yakima Valley quadrupled in size, as workers walked out at three more apple packinghouses. More than a hundred stopped work on May 7 at Allan Brothers Fruit, a large apple growing, packing and shipping company in Naches, in Central Washington. On May 12 they were joined by 200 more workers, who walked off the job at the Jack Frost Fruit Co. in Yakima, and at the Matson Fruit Co. in Selah. The next day another 100 workers walked out at the Monson Fruit packing shed, also in Selah.

At the center of the stoppages are two main demands for those who decide to continue working during the pandemic: safer working conditions and an extra $2 an hour in hazard pay.

Apple sheds line the industrial streets of Yakima Valley's small towns. Inside these huge concrete buildings, hundreds of people labor shoulder-to-shoulder, sorting and packing fruit.  If someone gets sick, it can potentially spread through the workers on the lines, and from them into the surrounding towns.  Although packinghouse laborers are almost entirely immigrants from Mexico, their families comprise the stable heart of these areas. Most have lived here for years. Jobs in the sheds are a step up from the fields, with year-round work at 40 hours per week.

This part of agribusiness is by far Central Washington's largest employer, and the industry has successfully fought off unions for many years. The virus may change that, however, if the strike wave becomes the spark for creating a permanent organization among these workers. It is undoubtedly what the companies fear when they see workers stop the lines, and even more so, when they see farmworker union organizers helping to sustain the walkouts.

*   *   *

"The most important demand for us is that we have a healthy workplace and protection from the virus," said Agustin Lopez, one of the strike leaders at Allan Brothers. "Fourteen people have left work over the last month because they have the COVID-19. So far as we know, the company isn't paying them. We need protections at work, like adequate masks, and we want tests. How do we even know if any of us have been infected if there are no tests?" (Allan Brothers Fruit did not respond to phone and email requests for comment for this story.)

He charges that Allan Brothers didn't disinfect the plant and stop production when the workers got sick. One worker, Jennifer Garton, told the Yakima Herald, "They are not doing what they're saying they're doing," and that workers only heard about the cases of COVID-19 in the plant through their own conversations.

According to Lopez, at the end of April the workers sent an email to company managers, asking for better conditions, extra pay, and the right to take off work. "People were taking their vacations or sick leave or anything they could to stay home. The company said that if we had worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn't pay us. We're only making minimum wage, so how could we do that? And we have no guarantee we would even have our jobs back if we don't come in to work now."

In response to the demands, he says the company offered to buy the workers lunch. Over a hundred workers rejected that and struck the company.

The shed of another Yakima packer, Roche Fruit Company, did stop work in April to disinfect the plant, after two workers had become infected. Roche employees then also demanded hazard pay in a message to managers. When the company offered an additional $200 per month, the laborers stopped work after lunch on May 11. After an hour of bargaining, the company offered them $100 per week instead, and they went back to work. Operations manager Alfonso Pineda said the company had already planned to give workers "gratitude pay" for working in difficult circumstances.

"At the heart of the dissatisfaction of all these workers is the fact they are essential workers, but their pay does not reflect that," says Edgar Franks, the political director of the new union for Washington farm workers, Familias Unidas por la Justicia. He explains that workers from both Roche and Allan Brothers got in touch with them when they were getting ready to strike. "The walkouts then started after management refused to raise their wages. At Roche, when union organizers and leadership arrived, management quickly relented. This is the power of the presence of the union."

  *   *   *

But fear is driving the strikes, even more than wages. After walking out of the packing plant, workers at Jack Frost stood in a big circle six feet apart while Claudia, a striker, explained that they were fighting for the health of their whole community. "We want everyone to have a health examination, including our children and other people possibly affected," she declared.  "We want it for our whole family, because we know the virus doesn't just stay in the plant. It's outside too."

At the rally in front of the Allan Brothers packinghouse, another woman said the same thing: that the biggest question was whether they could work without getting sick. "We have people who have been affected in this shed," she told Yakima city councilwoman Dulce Gutierrez. "We want the company to guarantee that there are no more people who have the virus here at work, so that we can protect ourselves and our families."

The working conditions themselves are responsible for much of the danger, and Franks says the companies have not been responsive. "Ever since the governor's order [mandating physical distancing and safe conditions], a lot of the safety measures haven't reached the workers inside.  The workers are elbow-to-elbow on the line, packing the fruit going through there.  Workers got sick, and they're concerned that no one is looking after them or the wellbeing of their family and friends still inside."

Agustin Lopez has lived in the Yakima Valley and worked in its sheds since 1985. His experience has made him cautious, therefore, about predicting whether workers will decide if a permanent union is the answer to their problems. But when he looks at the waves of people leaving the apple sheds, each company encouraging the next one, he thinks change is not just possible, but happening around him. "This connection between us is something new," he says, "and there are people out here from lots of the plants. Maybe we are actually a federation." The answer will be determined by the strike, he believes. "If the companies are willing to negotiate, we'll listen to what they have to say. And if not, then we will continue with our strike."

Tuesday, May 12, 2020


Wall installation in Davis, CA

A WORKING LENS (A.W.L) is a project of Class Conscious Photographers, a collective of photographers who document the lives of working people, as participants in the broad movement for social, racial and economic justice.  The current exhibition of A Working Lens (A.W.L.) is installed in the public space outside the gallery walls at the John Natsoulas Gallery in Davis, CA. The work exhibited is a text and photo installation that looks at the contributions made by workers during the coronavirus crisis, who we all depend on to maintain our common social infrastructure during this pandemic.  In their voices, presented in text panels and the signs held in protests, people in the photographs speak to the reality of their lives, and the contradiction between calling workers "essential" while they can't pay rent, afford healthcare or confront injustice.  We note that these are conditions that existed before the pandemic, and will likely continue afterwards as well. The participating photographers in the A.W.L. exhibit put these images and voices - of truck drivers, warehouse workers market vendors, recycle workers, baristas, food servers, subway cleaners, retail workers and other "essential" workers - into this public space so that viewers can appreciate their labor, and take what action they think this situation merits.  The photographers are (alphabetically) David Bacon, Glenda Drew, Jesse Drew, Najib Joe Hakim and Antonio Nava.

Wednesday, May 6, 2020


Photos by David Bacon
RICHMOND, CA, 5/1/20

I was three when my mother and father took me to one of the last May Day marches and rallies in New York City's Union Square.  Police and rightwing golpeadores (beaters, as they're called in Mexico) attacked the people in the square, mostly families like ours.  I remember the fear and people running.  Reading about it now, I know they held banners calling for freedom for Willie McGee and other Black prisoners, and protesting the Taft-Hartley law used to drive radicals out of unions and workplaces. 

May Day started in the U.S., honoring the Haymarket martyrs in Chicago, executed because they hated capitalism and fought for the eight-hour day.  But after those Cold War years of the early 1950s, in this country May Day was called the Communist holiday.  In every other country but ours, thousands - even millions - of workers would take the day off and honor themselves - the working class.  Here, if you used the words, "working class" and tried to celebrate May Day you were called a red.  You'd lose your job.

That all changed in 2006.  Millions of immigrants in this country, from countries where May Day is the workers' holiday, marched and defeated Congressman James Sensenbrenner's proposal to make felons of every undocumented immigrant.  I was there at the biggest one - two marches of a million people each in Los Angeles.  I thank the immigrants who recovered May Day for us, in the land where it started.

 Since then I've taken my camera to May Day demonstrations wherever I found them. This year I went out to the huge Amazon warehouse in Richmond, to photograph the workers organizing for simple, basic things - a wage raise, a health plan and protection from being unjustly fired.  Most important this year, people want protection from the virus.  Workers in warehouses and meatpacking plants and labor camps around the country are getting sick and dying.

So people stood at that appropriate physical distance on the sidewalk on Giant Highway, across the parking lot from the warehouse.  They called it Essential Workers Day, recognizing the essential nature of the work people are doing during the pandemic.  It was a good name for May Day this year.  But the hypocrisy wasn't lost on anyone - calling people essential and then forcing them to risk their lives in unsafe workplaces for close to minimum wage. 

Dionte came out of the warehouse on break, spoke up, and then went back to work.  It takes courage to do that.

I've been in the Amazon warehouse here for a few weeks, but I've been working in warehouses for 15 or 20 years. They should be paying us more.  We put our health on the line to work here.  They just want to make sure the packages get out.  But we should be compensated for that.  Just $2 more an hour wouldn't hurt the CEO.  He wouldn't even notice it.

Why don't they just give everybody what we're asking for - $2 an hour raise, better safety precautions.  A union would be great.  They treat you a lot better if there's a union.

Adrienne Williams used to be a teacher, trying to organize educators and parents at a charter school.  She got burned out and took a job at Amazon because she wanted less stress.  Instead she found that injustice in the warehouse was the same as the injustice at the charter school.

I was 42 on Monday, and I have a daughter who's seven.  I'm furloughed, but I worked here for Amazon for four and a half months.  When I got here I saw there weren't even the minimum standards.  I saw the injustices and inequities.  They promised me $21-26 an hour with benefits.  But I got $20 and no benefits. I have asthma and I need benefits.  I thought I'd just keep my head down, but it unnerved me to see that people weren't being treated right.

I'm speaking up for all the delivery drivers.  If you say anything about your job, Amazon will take away your contract.  They say we don't work for Amazon, but for a contractor.  So how come they can fire us? 

When I saw the things Bezos said about Chris Molin [a worker fired for organizing, and then publicly denigrated by Amazon owner Jeff Bezos], I could see how he sees all the rest of us.

Al Aloudi is a driver.  He saw that whether you drive for Amazon or for Uber or Lyft, it's the same exploitation.

I've been driving my car for Amazon Plus.  Here you're a self-contractor, like Uber, but instead of delivering passengers we deliver packages.  I make $15 an hour, minus my expenses.  I'm 36 and I have  four kids - 11, 8, 5 and three and a half.  I've been out of work since February 15.  My dad got the coronavirus and I couldn't work with no healthcare.  I had to volunteer to get healthcare for him, and fortunately he recovered.

We need better conditions, and more safety.  Fifty drivers for Uber have died already.  When you die it's like when you get terminated at work.  The company just forgets you were ever there.

I really like AB 5 [California's new law that forces companies like Uber and Amazon to treat contract workers as employees with rights and benefits].  The big companies are paying $110 million to get people to vote no against it [in a referendum the companies are trying to put on the California ballot].  That would just deprive drivers of their rights.  If they just used a quarter of that money it would be enough to give benefits to all the drivers for five years.  

Charles was driving a truck in my neighborhood, and we talked as I was getting ready to go out to the warehouse.

I heard about the walkout at the warehouse this morning.  But the people are scared that they'll lose their jobs.  And this is the only job out there for them.  I'm a cement mason.  For me, what they pay to drive the truck is chump change.  I hear my work is starting up again, so I'm going back to it as soon as I can.  This is a terrible job.

Inside the warehouse it's really crazy.  I've heard that two people have the virus already, but they don't really tell us anything.  I don't think they care about us at all.  Be careful about the packages you get.  I try to wipe down all of mine, but they don't give you enough to do all of them.

Jessica Etheridge isn't an Amazon worker.  She's an activist in San Francisco's hotel union, UNITE HERE Local 2.  I've taken photographs of her many times over the years in the union's strikes and street actions.  Jessica was the person who called me, and got me out to the Amazon warehouse on May Day.  Come out, she said  - document the workers standing up and speaking out, at the risk of their jobs.  Jessica is what union and worker solidarity looks like, what May Day really celebrates.

It's a mistake to think that just because the warehouse is huge, with hundreds of people inside, that a small number demonstrating outside doesn't amount to much.  But it takes real courage to speak your mind in a non-union company.  I know.  I was fired and blacklisted for it long ago.  I learned, like Charles says, that people are scared because they need the job, as terrible as it might be.  That's the same need that gets people to go to work even knowing that other people there might be sick, or that they'll meet people on their routes who are.  Courage in the time of the virus.

But each person who speaks out is not only acting as a brave individual, she or he is giving a voice to many people who think the same way.  Organizing is the job of turning that hidden and passive sympathy into workers ready to act in defense of their rights, ready to fight for the power to force the company to recognize them. 

Out there on Giant Highway I thought about those families in Union Square in 1951.  Who would have thought they'd turn into a million people in the streets all over this country 55 years later?  All organizing starts with a small group, that expands to encompass the majority.  That's what scares Amazon.

Monday, May 4, 2020


By David Bacon
TruthOut, 5/4/2020

 A street in a barrio of maquiladora workers.  David Bacon

In Washington, D.C., President Trump is trying his best to reopen closed meatpacking plants, as packinghouse workers catch the COVID-19 virus and die. In Tijuana, Mexico, where workers are dying in mostly U.S.-owned factories (known as maquiladoras) that produce and export goods to the U.S., the Baja California state governor, a former California Republican Party stalwart, is doing the same thing.

Jaime Bonilla Valdez rode into the governorship in 2018 on the coattails of Mexican President Andrés Manuel López Obrador. And at first, as a leading member of López Obrador's MORENA Party, he was a strong voice calling for the factories on the border to suspend production.

López Obrador himself was criticized for not acting rapidly enough against the pandemic. But in late March, in the face of Mexico's rising COVID-19 death toll, he finally declared a State of Health Emergency. Nonessential businesses were ordered to shut their doors, and to continue paying workers' wages until April 30.

Bonilla's Labor Secretary Sergio Martinez applied the federal government's rule to the foreign-owned factories on the border, producing goods for the U.S. market. Again, only essential businesses would be excepted.

When news spread that many factories were defying the order to close, Bonilla condemned them. "The employers don't want to stop earning money," he said at a news conference in mid-April. "They are basically looking to sacrifice their employees." But now, a month later, he is allowing many non-essential factories to reopen.

Explaining the about-face are two competing pressures. At first, workers in the factories took action to shut them down, a move widely supported in border cities. But as the owners themselves resisted, they got the help of the U.S. government. The Trump administration put enormous pressure on the Mexican government and economy, vulnerable because of its dependence on the U.S. market.

Now as the factories are opening again, the deaths are still rising.

Strikes Start in Mexicali

Although Baja California is much less densely populated than other Mexican states, it's now third in the number of COVID-19 cases, with 1,660 people infected. Some 261 have died statewide, and 164 in Tijuana alone. That's more deaths than 131 in neighboring San Diego, a much larger metropolis. Fifteen percent of those with COVID-19 in Tijuana die, while only 3.5 percent die in San Diego. As is true everywhere, with the absence of extensive testing, no one really knows how many are sick.

In Tijuana, most who die are working-age. Since one-tenth of the city's 2.1 million residents work in over 900 maquiladoras, and even more are dependent on those factory jobs, the spread of the virus among maquiladora workers is very threatening.

Alarm grew when two workers died in early April at Plantronics, where 3,300 employees make phone headsets. Schneider Electric closed when one worker died and 11 more got sick. Skyworks, a manufacturer of parts for communications equipment with 5,500 workers, admitted that some had been infected.

In the growing climate of fear, workers began to stop work. In Mexicali, Baja California's state capital, workers struck on April 9 at three U.S.-owned factories: Eaton, Spectrum and LG. Protesters said the companies were forcing people to come to work under threat of being permanently fired, refusing to pay the government-mandated wages and failing to provide masks to workers. The factories were forced to close by the state government.

Work then stopped at three more factories - Jonathan, SL and MTS. There, the companies offered bonuses of 20-40 percent if workers would stay on the job, but employees rejected the offer. One striker, Daniel, told a reporter for the Mexican newspaper La Jornada, "We want health - we don't want money, or bonuses or even double pay. We just want them to comply with the presidential order that nonessential factories close, and to pay us our full salary." Jonathan makes metal rails for machine guns and tanks for U.S. companies. Workers denied company claims that they made "essential" telecommunications equipment, a common claim by factories that want to stay open.

A young worker pulls plastic parts from a plastic molding machine which will be assembled into coathangers for the garment industry, in the Tijuana, Mexico, maquiladora of Plasticos Bajacal. Workers tried unsuccessfully to organize an independent, democratic union there.  David Bacon

The Organization of the Workers and Peoples, a radical group among maquiladora workers in Baja California, reported a week of work stoppages at Skyworks, and a strike at Gulfstream on April 10. At Honeywell Aerospace, workers began shutting down production on April 6. "The company then laid off 100 people without pay, and fired four of them," said Mexicali worker/activist Jesus Casillas. Honeywell closed for a week, and then reopened.

As the strikes progressed, workers reported the death of two people in Clover Wireless's two plants that repair cellphones. They were closed for one shift, and then started up again. Finally, on April 14, a general strike was called by Mexicali maquiladora workers, and supported by the state chapter of the New Labor Center, a union federation organized by the Mexican Electrical Workers Union.

The Factories Don't Actually Close

Companies that said they were closing never really did, workers charged. "They'd close the front door and put a chain on," Casillas explained. "Then they bring workers in through the back door. They'd call the workers down to the factory, and would tell them that if they didn't go back to work, they'd lose their jobs permanently."

Elsewhere on the border, workers also complain about being forced to work. Company scofflaws even included breweries. In the rest of Mexico, beer began to disappear from store shelves as a result of López Obrador's order, shuttering breweries because alcohol production was not deemed "essential." Modelo and Heineken, two huge producers, complied. Constellation Brands' two enormous breweries in Coahuila, which make Corona and Modelo for the U.S. market, did not.

On May Day, a Facebook post even showed workers at the Piedras Negras glass plant that makes the bottles for Constellation Brands lined up without masks. A message from a worker, Alejandro Lopez, charges, "We ask for masks and they deny us, like they do with [sanitizing] gel, which they only give us at the [brewery] entrance, and that's it." The response posted by the plant human relations director, Sofia Bucio, says the company does everything required, and then goes on to berate the worker: "We didn't go take you out of your house and force you to work with us, right?... If you don't like the measures IVC [the glass company] is taking, the doors were wide open to let you in when you came here, and they're the same to let you out."

In border cities across the Rio Grande from Texas, other factories that wanted to stay open said they'd let workers worried about the virus stay home, but only at 50 percent of their normal wages. "People can't possibly live on that," charged Julia Quiñones, director of the Border Women Workers Committee. Since López Obrador ordered a raise a year ago, the minimum wage on the border has been 185.56 pesos ($7.63) per day. Fifty percent of that, in Nuevo Laredo, would barely buy a gallon of milk (80 pesos).

"There's no other work the women can do in town," Quiñones explained. "In the past, some workers crossed the border to earn extra money by donating blood. But the border is now closed, even for those that have visas. They can't sell things in the street because of the lockdown. The only option is to work."

One worker told her, "It is better to work at 100 percent, even if we're risking our lives, than to be at home with 50 percent."

Meanwhile, work stoppages spread to other border cities, as the death toll rose. Lear Corporation, which employs 24,000 people making car seats in Ciudad Juárez, closed its 12 plants there on April 1. Lear had more COVID-19 fatalities than any company on the border. It won't cite a number, and says it only learned of the first death on April 3. By the end of April, however, 16 Lear workers were dead from the virus, 13 from its Rio Bravo factory alone.

As other plants continued operations despite a death toll, strikes broke out. On April 17, workers struck at six maquiladoras, demanding that the companies stop operations and pay workers the government-mandated wages. Twenty people in the city had died by then, including two workers at Regal Beloit (a coffin manufacturer), and two workers at Syncreon, according to protesters. At Honeywell, 70 strikers said the company hadn't provided masks, and had forced people with hypertension and diabetes to show up for work.

The Electrolux plant stopped work on April 24 after two workers, Gregoria González and Sandra Perea, died. Two weeks earlier, workers there had protested the lack of health protection. When workers finally stopped working, the company locked them inside and later fired 20. One told journalist Kau Sirenio, "The company wouldn't tell us anything though we all knew that we were working at the risk of getting infected. They waited until two died before they closed, and fired those who protested the lack of safe conditions. They still say their operation is essential, but you can see how little they care about the lives of the workers."

In Juárez, the mayor closed the city's restaurants but allowed the maquiladoras to keep running. When workers at TPI Composites began their protest, the city police were even called out against them. Nevertheless, in Juárez and other border cities throughout April, the pressure of workers did succeed often in forcing the government to demand compliance from the companies.

The U.S. Intervenes

At the end of April, the U.S. government intervened on behalf of the owners of the stalled plants. The Trump administration is set on protecting the new United States-Mexico-Canada Agreement set to go into effect on July 1. While the agreement has theoretical protections for worker health and safety, there is no expectation that it would be invoked to ensure that plants remain shut until the COVID-19 danger recedes. Instead, its purpose is to protect the chains of supply and investment between Mexico and the U.S., especially involving factories on the border.

"You can imagine how desperate we are, since we're so poor, and without a law to protect us. Here, if you have no money, the government won't enforce the law. We really have very good laws in Mexico, but a very bad government." Veronica Vasquez spoke these words in the middle of a dusty street in Tijuana. "Companies come to Mexico to make money. They think they can do anything they want with us because we're Mexicans. Well, it's our country, even if we're poor. Not theirs."  David Bacon

López Obrador's order classified as "essential" only companies directly involved in critical industries such as health care, food production or energy, and excluded companies that supply materials to factories in those industries. But from the beginning, many maquiladoras claimed they were "essential" anyway because they supplied other factories in the U.S. Luis Hernandez, an executive at a Tijuana exporter association, admitted, "Companies have wanted to use the 'essential' classifications of the U.S."

The military-industrial complex has a growing stake in border factories, which exported $1.3 billion in aerospace and armament products to the U.S. in 2004, climbing to $9.6 billion last year. To defend that huge stake, Luis Lizcano, general director of the Mexican Federation of Aerospace Industries, told the Mexican government it had to give Mexico's defense industry the "essential" status it enjoys in the U.S. and Canada.

Pentagon Undersecretary of Defense for Acquisition and Sustainment Ellen Lord announced she was meeting Mexican Foreign Minister Marcelo Ebrard to urge him to let U.S. defense corporations restart production in their maquiladoras. "Mexico right now is somewhat problematical for us, but we're working through our embassy," she said. She later announced her visit had been successful.

Using the language of the Trump administration, U.S. Ambassador Christopher Landau played down the risk to workers. "There is risk everywhere but we don't all stay at home out of fear that we're going to crash our cars," he said in a tweet. "Economic destruction also threatens health.... On both sides of the border, investment = employment = prosperity."

Finally, on April 28, Baja Governor Bonilla bowed to the pressure and ordered the reopening of 40 "closed" maquiladoras. According to Secretary of Economic Development Mario Escobedo Carignan, they are now considered part of the supply chain for essential products. "We're not in the business of trying to suspend your operations," he told owners, "but to work with you to keep creating jobs and generating wealth in this state."

Given that many "closed" factories in fact were operating already, Julia Quiñones said bitterly, "This is what always happens here on the border. The companies break the law, and then the law is changed to make it all legal." And Mexico's federal government itself has begun to back down as well, announcing three days after a U.S. request that it will allow the many enormous auto plants in Mexico to restart their assembly lines once automakers restart them north of the border.

The announcements didn't indicate that Mexico had flattened the coronavirus infection curve or that the factories were now safe. In one 24-hour period, from April 29 to 30, the number of cases per million people went from 138 to 149. A million workers labor in over 3,000 factories on the border. The virus has already led to numerous deaths among them, and if all factories resume production while it still rages, the death toll will surely rise.

Luis Hernández Navarro, editor at Mexico's left-wing daily, La Jornada (no relation to the Tijuana businessman), reminded his readers that the catastrophic spread of the virus in Italy was caused by the continued operation of factories in Lombardy until it was too late.

"The maquiladora industry has never cared about the health of its operators, just its profits," he wrote recently. "Their production lines must not stop, and in the best colonial tradition, Uncle Sam has pressured Mexico to keep the assemblers operating.... The obstinacy of the maquiladoras makes it likely that the Italian case will be repeated here."