Yakima County Agricultural Workers are Organizing for Health, Rights, Dignity
On May 7th the workers at six Yakima Valley packinghouses went out on strike. Among their demands: health-protective working and living conditions, information about COVID-19 in workers’ native languages, and hazard pay. The strikes focused broad attention on the conditions of workers who Governor Inslee called "essential," even though many are excluded from emergency benefits provided by federal and state governments. In April and May, rates of infection from COVID-19 soared in Yakima County. By mid-May, the county had the highest rates of infection of any county on the West Coast; local health officials acknowledged that unsafe conditions in the fields and packinghouses were a big part of the reason for the surge.
The strike generated tremendous energy in the community and broad support throughout the region. Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the largely indigenous Latinx farmworker union based in Skagit County brought workers and organizers who stayed with the strikers, encouraging and advising them. A caravan of activists arrived from King County with food and supplies; people also drove from Olympia to bring food and express their support. The strike lasted 3 weeks--a long time for low-wage workers to hold out against wealthy employers. By the end of May, all the workers had returned to work. Most had reached agreements that their employers would institute health protections in the workplace. Just as important, employers acknowledged the former strike committees as the legitimate representatives of the workers and promised to continue negotiations once workers were back inside the plants.
Our organization, Strengthening Sanctuary Alliance, raised funds to support the strike and continues to look for ways to support the Yakima Valley Farmworkers in their struggle. Although most of our work since we began in late 2016 has a local focus, we have also been attentive to legal, economic, social and health contexts regionally and nationally. COVID-19 impacts everyone, but the rate of infection and damage falls most heavily on people of color and people who lack access to support services, including health insurance. The Latinx population, which does most of our state’s farm work, numbers 13% of the state population, but counts for over 30% of COVID cases. Although the state has yet to collect systematic data about rates of infection among farmworkers, the Department of Health found that are becoming infected at higher rates than other occupational groups. The COVID pandemic exposes and exacerbates the structural inequities which farmworkers struggle with on a daily basis. This struggle is invisible to the majority of Americans, including the residents of our state, even while they enjoy the delicious fruits and vegetables that farmworkers cultivate and harvest.
As the pandemic spread, Community to Community Development, a farmworker-led advocacy group based in Bellingham, Washington, warned of the dangers farmworkers faced:
This pandemic has found a perfect environment to increase our communities' risk of fatality if they contract the virus. The agricultural industry has long refused to implement health and safety protections for farmworkers or worker housing, while state and federal agencies looked the other way.
There are over 100,000 farmworkers in Washington State. They occupy a pivotal place in our state's economy, harvesting, processing and packing apples, strawberries, cherries, blueberries, peaches, and other fruits and vegetables for local consumption and export. Without these essential workers, the state's economy would be in serious trouble. Yet farmworkers are among the poorest people in the nation. The average life expectancy for farmworkers is significantly lower than for other occupational groups. Even before COVID, farmworkers received few protections on the job; they are exposed to occupational hazards, including toxic pesticides which can compromise their lungs and overall health, rendering them more vulnerable to COVID-19. The majority of farmworkers do not have health insurance.
Some, although by no means all, farmworkers are undocumented. In the current COVID emergency, they are not eligible for federal or state protection, including the federal $1200 stimulus check or state unemployment insurance. Recently, the state of Washington agreed to set up an emergency fund for undocumented workers, but this is still in process.
Meanwhile, agricultural employers in Washington State have access to several pools of workers, including both domestic and international (H2A) workers. H2A workers are “guest” workers who are recruited from Mexico to work for a specific employer. They are not eligible for state supports like unemployment insurance or sick leave, they cannot participate in a union, and they do not have the option to remain in the U.S. when their job ends. In order for employers to be licensed to bring H2A workers by the State Department of Employment Security, they must establish that there is a “labor shortage” in their area. But advocates have questioned if labor shortages actually exist, or whether, if they do exist, they are the result of substandard working conditions and wages. They argue that if farm work was treated as skilled labor, and compensated accordingly, there would be no labor shortage. They stress that employers’ ability to bring guest workers makes it more difficult for domestic workers to speak up for their rights or organize against repressive conditions, since they can easily be replaced.
It is this constellation of factors which makes the struggle in Yakima so important. Despite profound structural challenges, farmworkers in Yakima are asserting their rights to health, safety, dignity and a sustainable livelihood. That struggle, which began on the picket lines, is now continuing inside the packinghouses, as workers organize to assert their worth and collective power.
For more information see our our Resources Section
Yakima Valley Farmworkers Struggle: A Timeline