By Peter Costantini
SEATTLE, USA, Aug 31 2023 (IPS)
The Yakima River runs southeast from the Cascade Mountains through central Washington state to merge with the Columbia a little north of Oregon. From the small city of Yakima on down, its course broadens from a winding canyon into a wide valley bounded by austere low ridges of gray-green sagebrush and tawny grasses. In mid-April, the new leaves of the willows and cottonwoods light up the riverbanks with luminous chartreuse.
“De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera …”
“Colors, the fields are clothed with colors in the spring …”
(From an old farm workers song)
The valley beyond the river bottom was once mostly semi-arid rangeland punctuated by basalt cliffs. But as irrigation systems spread across it in the early 20th Century, it morphed into rich farmlands. Expanses of vineyards stretch across the valley and climb the hills. One part of the Yakima Valley Highway has been renamed “Wine Country Road”, and at intersections, signs point to wineries and tasting rooms.
Tall frameworks of wood and wire stand waiting for hop vines to grow up them. The Yakima Valley produces more than three-quarters of the hops grown in the United States. Apple and pear orchards are beginning to bloom. In fields of corn and beans, the first green shoots are just poking up.
The town of Sunnyside drapes over a hill about 30 miles southeast of Yakima city. The town’s 16 thousand residents are 86 percent Hispanic, and Yakima County is over 52 percent, in a country where the Hispanic population is approaching one-fifth of the total and growing.
Yearly per capita income in Sunnyside is $15,570 and the poverty rate is 18.6 percent, compared with $43,817 and 9.9 percent for the state of Washington. That means that average yearly income here is a bit more than one-third that of the state, and poverty is almost twice as high. [U.S. Census Bureau. “QuickFacts”]
At the south end of town, across Interstate 82, Midvale Road is lined with industrial processing and service facilities: warehouses, pipelines, silos, and tanks for dairy, candy, feed, fertilizer and equipment. At the end of this agribusiness stronghold, rows of long white structures looking like opaque greenhouses are identified by a sign: “Windmill Farms”. Inside, on multi-level bins in windowless, climate-controlled rooms, mushrooms are growing. The delivery trucks parked outside the farm still have “Ostrom Farms”, the name of the previous owners, painted on their sides.
Over a year ago, Ostrom workers began to raise complaints about working conditions, wages, and management, working with organizers from the United Farm Workers union. Getting no response, they voted overwhelmingly to form a union to bargain with the company. Ostrom responded by laying off all its workers and selling the farm to Windmill Farms, which is controlled by an investment firm
Along the road outside the mushroom farm one April afternoon, workers, their families, and their supporters walk a picket line. Crimson flags bearing a black Aztec eagle on a white circle flutter in a stiff wind. Red, white, blue and green undulate as well: a young boy hoists an American flag as an older man waves the Mexican tricolor. Homemade signs say “We Feed You” and “La Union Es La Fuerza” (“The union is strength”), and “Queremos unión – Protesta (“We want a union – Protest).
From a portable sound system, the Mexican ranchera (country) music of Joan Sebastian and Los Tigres del Norte lends an upbeat accordion and guitar cadence to the proceedings.
These mushroom workers are picketing Windmill Farms to demand that it right some flagrant wrongs that Ostrom Farms, the former owner, inflicted on them before selling the farm. The new owners, they say, have not remedied the problems.
Over a year ago, Ostrom workers began to raise complaints about working conditions, wages, and management, working with organizers from the United Farm Workers union. Getting no response, they voted overwhelmingly to form a union to bargain with the company. Ostrom responded by laying off all its workers and selling the farm to Windmill Farms, which is controlled by an investment firm. Windmill told the former workers that they could reapply to work there, but would have to accept restrictions on their workplace rights.
Before the sale, Ostrom had replaced most of its workers, who were predominantly Hispanic women living in the area, with male “guest workers” brought in from Mexico on H-2A temporary agricultural visas. They have limited labor rights and can easily be fired and deported. A few of the original workers were hired back, but some not at their old jobs.
The demonstrators are demanding that Windmill rehire workers who were fired, address their grievances, recognize their union and bargain a contract with it. Members of other unions have come from around the state to show solidarity.
The president of the United Farm Workers, Teresa Romero, has come up from California. She addresses the crowd in Spanish:
“We’re here today fighting for all of you. But we can’t do this without the leadership, that you’ve demonstrated. It’s not easy. Many of you have been fired for demanding your rights. But we’re going to keep fighting for the workers who are still inside and who are afraid. And the fear they feel is very justified because many of you were fired. … Here we are and we’re not leaving! Thanks to all who are supporting us from outside of the farm workers movement, but who realize how hard it is for workers in the fields to organize.”
She ends her speech with “¡Sí, se puede!” (“Yes we can!”), the traditional farm workers grito. And the crowd continues cheering, “¡Sí, se puede!”.
Next, an animated man with a goatee and sunglasses smiles at the assembly. José Martínez is one of the leaders in forming the union. He was fired by Ostrom, but then rehired by Windmill. His Spanish is hoarse and passionate:
“I want to send a very clear message to the company: we don’t want to destroy you. The only thing we want is that you treat us with dignity, equality and respect as human beings. And to have a union, that’s what we’re fighting for. Thanks to all of you who have come from different places to support our cause. We won’t leave until we reach this goal. ¡Viva la causa! ¡Viva César Chávez! ¡Viva la unión! ¡Siempre pa’adelante!” (“Long live the cause! Long live Cesar Chavez! Long live the Union! Always forward!”)
Daniela Barajas was fired by Ostrom but found a job with a different company. She tells the crowd in Spanish:
“We’ve just begun to fight. Although I haven’t worked in the mushroom farm more than a year – I was one of those who was fired – I continue supporting the people who are there [and] those who don’t have jobs to feed their families. They have a right to better treatment at work. And we’re not going away until they recognize a union there..”
Her speech is echoed by chants of: “¿Que queremos? ¡Unión!” (“What do we want? Union!”).
The union’s Secretary of Civic Action, Juanito Marcial, drove over with some other workers from the Seattle area to offer solidarity to the mushroom workers. The Chateau Sainte Michelle winery there, where he works, is the site of the United Farm Workers’ first contract in the state. Workers won it in 1995 after an eight-year struggle, and it remains in force. Most of the UFW’s membership, however, is in California where the union began.
Marcial recalls that history in Spanish: “We’re here, the comrades who work at Sainte Michelle under a union contract. And I want to tell you that we now have an average of 27 years, the only agricultural site that has a [UFW] contract [in Washington], and that we’re enjoying various benefits for workers. We’re saying to you, comrades, that this is just the first step, we can’t weaken. Hasta la victoria siempre! (Until victory always!)”
The UFW regional director, Victoria Ruddy, closes the rally by thanking the workers for a year of struggle. “As don José says, ‘¡No vamos a parar hasta ganar unión!’” (‘We won’t stop until we win a union!’) And the crowd ambles over to a nearby park for a picnic.
New bosses, but still no union
“Yes, we can! The union is strength!” UFW rally, Sunnyside, Washington, April 18, 2023. Photo: Peter Costantini
Sign at mushroom workers rally, Sunnyside, Washington, April 18, 2023. Photo: Peter Costantini
The road that led the mushroom workers to their April 18 rally outside of Windmill Farms was riddled with corporate switchbacks and legal potholes.
In 2019, Ostrom Mushrooms closed a mushroom farm in western Washington state, laid off more than 200 workers, and moved its operations to Sunnyside. The firm received generous public subsidies from different levels of government for construction of a new $60 million plant.
In Sunnyside, Ostrom hired a new workforce varying between 200 and 300 workers. Most were local Hispanic women. At that time, CEO Travis Wood complained of a shortage of labor despite the advantages of year-round work and controlled-climate conditions inside the facility.
“In mid-2021,” The Washington State Attorney General found, “Ostrom hired new management to improve its production. [It] believed Ostrom needed to replace its largely female workforce because [women] had childcare obligations and could not work late hours or weekends. … [M]anagement decided to replace its domestic workforce with workers from the H-2A guest worker program.”
Consequently, Ostrom employees elected a leadership committee to raise issues about wages and working conditions with management. They began to consult with United Farm Workers organizers and the non-profit Columbia Legal Services.
In June 2022, the workers submitted a petition to Ostrom calling for “fair pay, safe working conditions, and respect”. It alleged that managers had threatened and bullied workers, instituted mandatory overtime shifts and raised production quotas to excessive levels. Workers were overworked and undervalued, said Ostrom worker Joceline Castillo. But Ostrom stonewalled the petition.
Meanwhile, in August 2022, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a civil complaint against Ostrom under state laws. Ferguson accused Ostrom of discrimination and unfair employment practices based on employees’ sex, citizenship, or immigration status, and of retaliating against employees who opposed these violations. Ostrom had gone ahead and replaced most of its local female workers with male “guest” workers brought in from Mexico, whose H-2A temporary visas give them fewer labor protections. However, the H-2A program requires that the employer first demonstrate that it cannot hire enough workers from the local workforce, which was evidently not the case.
The complaint also charged Ostrom with “engaging in unfair and deceptive practices … by misleading actual and prospective domestic pickers with regard to job eligibility requirements, wages, and availability of employment.”
However, Ferguson was unable to directly address retaliation against union organizing or the use of H-2A workers to replace resident workers. These issues fall under federal law, while the state attorney general can enforce only state laws.
The National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 federal statute that regulates union organizing and collective bargaining, excludes farm workers and domestic workers from its coverage. So the Ostrom workers were not able to go through formal legal procedures for union recognition or to invoke the law’s protection against retaliation for union organizing.
Nevertheless, in September 2022 the workers announced their vote, held under UFW auspices: 70 percent chose to form a union. They asked management to sit down and bargain on wages and working conditions. Ostrom refused.
The Ostrom workers and UFW organizers upped the ante in their campaign by marshalling community support. They organized periodic informational pickets at the Ostrom farm in Sunnyside. And in a reprise of the farm worker boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s, they began in November to picket outside of a supermarket in Seattle. They asked consumers not to buy Ostrom mushrooms, but instead to seek out mushrooms from two unionized farms in California.
In November, the State Department of Labor & Industries responded to a complaint and found working conditions at Ostrom that could cause injuries to workers. The agency fined the grower only $4,000, but also investigated another complaint.
Then on February 14, the campaign hit a roadblock. According to the UFW, Ostrom Mushroom Farms management held a company-wide meeting to tell all its workers that they were fired immediately. As of that midnight, Ostrom’s facility would be sold to Greenwood Mushroom Sunnyside IA, LLC, a new entity owned by Windmill Farms. Based in Ashburn, Ontario, Canada, Windmill also uses the Greenwood Mushrooms label at farms in Ontario and Pennsylvania. In turn, Windmill is owned by Instar Asset Management, a Toronto-based private equity firm.
The fired Ostrom workers were told they could reapply for jobs under the new management. But they would have to fill out new applications, possibly accept different jobs, and sign arbitration agreements that forbade suing the employer or unionizing.
The Windmill and former Ostrom workers, including those now unemployed, pushed ahead with their campaign. Some of the original workers who were rehired complained that they ended up in worse jobs with lower pay.
Under Windmill Farms management, working conditions were still “pretty bad”, according to workers committee leader José Martínez, who had worked at Ostrom for three years. “They want you to go fast” to meet an hourly quota of picking 50 pounds of mushrooms, he told me. “They put you on probation for 90 days. If you don’t make [the quota] they’re gonna let you go.” The biggest problem, though, is that “there’s no communication with them. Sometimes one supervisor comes and tells you one thing, and then another one comes after and changes the whole thing.” If the company recognizes the union, he said, “everything is gonna be fine.”
Shortly after the rally, though, Martínez was fired by Windmill, which claimed he wasn’t meeting production demands. But he suspected he may have been fired because of his pro-union activism.
Finally on May 16, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office announced that Ostrom and Greenwood had signed a consent decree. Ostrom agreed to pay $3.4 million into a fund to compensate workers who suffered discrimination or retaliation for reporting it – over 170 may be eligible. In the agreement, Greenwood agreed to discontinue the “unfair and discriminatory employment practices” identified under Ostrom, and established a framework for compliance training and monitoring to prevent future violations.
“Ostrom’s systematic discrimination was calculated to force out female and Washington-based employees,” Ferguson said in a statement. “I want to thank the workers who spoke out against this discrimination in the face of so much danger and stood up for their rights. My team fought for them and today we secured an important victory.”
Beyond substantial compensation for the workers, the settlement avoided a drawn-out court battle. But because it was based on state law, it could not compel recognition of the union or rehiring by Windmill of the fired workers, nor could it address the prohibited use of H-2A temporary workers to replace resident workers.
A worker still employed by Windmill, Isela Cabrera, commented: “I am very happy for my coworkers who experienced humiliations and retaliations by Ostrom management.” She said that she hoped the consent decree would help begin to improve conditions, “as this new management continues to commit favoritism and retaliation. We want our fired friends to get their jobs back and for Windmill Farms to recognize our union.”
UFW President Romero explained to me that one focus of the union campaign will be on persuading Instar’s investors, some of which may be union pension funds, to pressure Windmill Farms to recognize the union.
The state branch of the AFL-CIO, the main national labor confederation, announced the formation of a solidarity committee. Its president, April Sims, emphasized: “All workers deserve fair treatment at work and the freedom to join together to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Workers at Windmill Farms are getting neither of those things. We stand in solidarity with these brave mushroom workers and we will fight side-by-side until we win a union contract at Windmill Farms.”
On August 10, the U.S. Department of Labor announced fines totaling some $74,000 and awards of unpaid wages amounting to over $59,000 to compensate 62 H-2A temporary workers at Ostrom who had been underpaid and misled about housing and meals. But did not announce any action against Ostrom for claiming that they could not find enough local workers, as the H-2A program requires, while simultaneously firing large numbers of them.
Catching a national wave of union organizing
The Ostrom / Windmill campaign joins a nascent national upswelling of union organizing across many industries. These initiatives, however, are swimming against half a century of anti-labor riptides.
Union membership in the U.S. in 2022 was 10.1 percent of wage and salary workers, with only 6.0 percent in the private sector, a post-WWII nadir. In 1955, 33.2 percent were unionized, more than three times as many. Union activists are frequently though illegally fired for organizing, and bargaining requirements for employers are often poorly enforced.
Agricultural and domestic workers were excluded from national labor protection laws in the 1930s, a relic of Jim Crow segregation that has never been remedied. The low-wage workers in those two fields at the time were mostly Black, Mexican or Filipino. Today they are mainly Hispanic, and among those most in need of strong labor protections.
If the former Ostrom workers had been in an industry other than agriculture or domestic work, they would have been covered by a federal law that protects worker efforts to unionize and forbids retaliation. And if rules had been enforced requiring businesses to show a dearth of local workers before hiring H-2A “guest” workers, the resident Ostrom workers could not have been legally replaced.
Despite these obstacles, a labor resurgence seems to be gaining momentum nationally. Mainly in low-wage service industries, most visibly at major employers like Starbucks and Amazon, organizing drives are making headlines. A 2022 Gallup opinion poll found that 71 percent of the U.S. public approve of labor unions, up from 48 percent in 2010 and 64 percent before the pandemic.
The Ostrom / Windmill campaign is also a protagonist in the renewed activism among agricultural workers. The United Farm Workers, founded in the early 1960s in California, reached a zenith in the later 1960s and 1970s, when it won numerous contracts and improved conditions in the fields. Its boycotts of grapes, lettuce and wine focused national attention on the widespread exploitation and abuse of farmworkers.
On the political front, the UFW spearheaded major improvements in labor laws, mainly in California. In 1975, a union campaign won the state’s approval of the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which recognized farm workers’ right to organize.
Over the next two decades the UFW’s organizing waned and membership shrank. But in this century, membership has reportedly doubled and the union has spearheaded new campaigns for farm worker rights and against wage theft and sexual harassment.
Recently, Washington state’s Democratic government passed legislation guaranteeing farm workers at least the state minimum wage, which is currently $15.74 per hour, and time-and-a-half overtime pay for more than 40 hours weekly beginning January 1, 2024.
The 1995 UFW contract won by workers at the Chateau Sainte Michelle winery is still in force today. And the Sunnyside workers are urging consumers to buy mushrooms grown on two unionized California farms. According to the UFW, over three-quarters of the fresh mushroom industry in California is unionized, as are thousands of workers on vegetable, berry, winery, tomato, and dairy farms.
Other independent unions as well have successfully organized farm workers in recent years, including Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice) in Washington state, and the Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida.
That black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a crimson flag may have to soar long and high outside of Windmill Farms and its owners’ offices to win a contract there. And many unions may have to walk picket lines outside of other farms, stores, and warehouses – and also city halls, statehouses and Congress – to ensure safe work environments and a decent living for all human beings who do “essential” work.
Yet despite the barriers erected against them, agricultural laborers are pursuing new strategies with old-fashioned grit to defend their workplace rights and build collective power.
“¡No, no, no nos moverán! Como un árbol firme junto al río, ¡no nos moverán!”
“We shall not, we shall not be moved! Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved!”
(From an old farm workers song)
Longer version with references: Americas Program – Mushroom workers want a union
About the author: Americas Program – Our People