A fruite packing worker holds a placard during a rally to protest workspace conditions during the coronavirus outbreak Friday, May 15, 2020, in Selah. (Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

A fruite packing worker holds a placard during a rally to protest workspace conditions during the coronavirus outbreak Friday, May 15, 2020, in Selah. (Amanda Ray/Yakima Herald-Republic via AP)

Yakima-area fruit workers in talks with employers

At least six Yakima Valley fruit packing houses have gone one strike over the past two weeks.

By Mai Hoang / Yakima Herald-Republic

Adrian Mendoza was among the four workers who met with Monson Fruit management Friday morning.

He is also part of a larger committee tasked with collecting worker concerns and feedback and passing it on to the company.

Mendoza, 26, who has worked for the Selah company for nearly two years, said he was nervous at first about his new leadership role.

“I never been in that type of situation,” he said.

A strike at Monson Fruit entered its third day Friday, one of six at Yakima Valley fruit packing houses this week. A seventh strike reported by workers at Roche Fruit in Yakima ended quickly after managers agreed to provide additional pay. Managers maintain the gathering was a planned meeting.

With many of the strikes now several days old, workers are focused on talks with corporate management.

In the last two days, management from Monson Fruit and Matson Fruit in Selah, Frosty Packing in Yakima and Allan Bros. in Naches have held meetings with a handful of workers serving as representatives for striking workers.

The discussions have provided an opportunity for workers to articulate detailed issues. Common concerns include a lack of available personal protective equipment, a lack of communication about positive COVID-19 cases and a desire for hazard pay.

“Everyone is actively listening,” Mendoza said. “Everything has been calm.”

After Friday’s meeting, the Monson Fruit workers committee met to review what was discussed and then shared information with the broader group.

Mendoza said the committee’s focus Friday was providing more details on workplace environment issues. The company had requested additional information.

“So, they have more of an idea and know which way to go and how to solve the issues,” he said.

Monson Fruit did not return a call seeking comment before publication.

Higher stakes

Just down the street, Matson Fruit officials met again with workers early Friday.

“Today, management updated the team member representatives on actions we have taken to address some of their concerns,” Jordan Matson said in an email to the Yakima Herald-Republic. “The representatives clarified and elaborated some of their concerns.”

Matson Fruit workers are still waiting for an answer on a critical issue: Whether workers will receive hazard or “appreciation” pay for the increased risk of exposure to COVID-19, said Alex Palma, 29, who attended the Friday meeting with Matson Fruit.

Workers are concerned the company is not giving an immediate answer in hopes that workers will eventually drop the issue.

Matson is planning to respond when it has an answer, Palma said in Spanish.

Translating for Palma was Alma Valdovinos, 30. She’s worked for the company for six years and is a team leader.

Valdovinos said her striking co-workers were surprised she was willing to walk out, considering her leadership role. But she wanted to show support — especially to those who have endured grief from supervisors, she said.

Sometimes, Valdovinos said, she hears supervisors yelling at workers.

Palma said she and her colleagues worked well together before. Now they are working together for higher stakes — personal safety and financial stability during a global pandemic.

“We’re not giving up,” she said. “We’re here until the finish.”

Week two

Workers at Allan Bros. started the second week of their strike Friday. They were the first to strike, on May 7, and started the wave of activism among fruit packing house workers.

Agustin Lopez, 48, was part of a worker group that met with management Thursday. Lopez said the company offered a $1 per hour raise for seven weeks.

The group rejected the offer and stuck with their original offer: A $100-a-week bonus that would be retroactively paid for the past four weeks and continue until there are indicators the region has emerged from COVID-19.

“COVID-19 isn’t going to end in seven weeks,” he said.

Lopez said the striking workers still feel positive and even more so seeing that workers from other companies are speaking out, too.

“We have a voice now,” he said. “We can talk; we can negotiate.”

Allan Bros. did not immediately return a phone call seeking comment Friday. Previously, CEO Miles Kohl said the company had implemented several social distancing and sanitation measures in response to worker concerns. Kohl said he wanted to cooperate with workers regarding economic demands, but had to balance them against falling apple prices and uncertainty over the market for cherries that will be harvested this summer.

In the meantime, Lopez said the worker committee is continuing to engage with attorneys, community supporters and labor groups. They are also calling state agencies and the state Commission on Hispanic Affairs to express their concerns.

“We’ve had a lot of issues,” he said. “Now we have to fight for our rights.”

And it’s a fight that the workers are taking ownership of. Groups such as the Latino Community Fund and Familias Unidas por La Justicia, a farmworker union in Skagit County, have spent the past few days discussing worker rights and providing guidance on community organizing.

But by Friday, representatives from those groups have stepped back and workers led the way.

“This is their strike,” said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia. Officials from the union, which also filed a lawsuit against state agencies calling for additional regulation and enforcement for agricultural employers, have been in town since May 8 and plan to remain while the strikes continue.

Open to suggestions

Around lunchtime, about 100 Frosty Packing workers gathered — while maintaining distance — to hear Arely Perez speak. Perez, 26, had spent two hours with company representatives Friday and shared what she learned.

This was the first meeting between employees and the Yakima fruit packing house since Tuesday, when workers went on strike.

The meeting primarily was an opportunity for Frosty Packing to share various measures it took in recent days, said Brian Bruner, operations manager.

Bruner said the company has increased sanitation measures in several areas and provided employees with rags and disinfectant solution if they want to do additional cleaning. The company also reminded employees of where they could find information about testing and that testing was available if a worker was showing symptoms.

There isn’t another meeting scheduled, but the company has provided contact information if workers wanted to discuss matters further.

“We just want to keep the line of communication open,” Bruner said.

Perez described the meeting as “neutral,” an opportunity for both sides to clarify concerns and other points. “We were both open to suggestions,” she said.

Perez said she’d been a fast learner in her new role as a worker representative. She worked for the company before, six years ago, but has been with the company in this latest stint for eight months.

She’s learned how to distill the thoughts of the larger group and articulate them to company managers.

For someone who described herself as shy, communicating with a big group was a new experience.

“I’m losing my nervousness while speaking,” she said.

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