Coronavirus concerns revive labor organizing
Washington fruit packers seek lasting gains from pandemic strikes.
On a crisp May morning in Washington’s Yakima Valley, Blanca Olivares took her break from sorting apples at the Allan Brothers packing facility a little early. Soon, five other workers joined her in the outdoor patio area. Together they waited, disappointment creeping in when more didn’t follow. Little by little, however, employees trickled out. Within the hour, 40 to 50 people had congregated, and the first in a string of labor strikes that would include hundreds of workers at seven fruit packing facilities in the valley had begun. “I didn’t know anything about strikes,” Olivares said, through a translator. “I just knew that if we all put our voices out there, then maybe they would listen to us.”
The labor actions — catalyzed by frustration over inadequate protections and compensation during the COVID-19 pandemic — swiftly grew into a protest against industry working conditions in general, according to Rodrigo Rentería Valencia, an anthropology professor at Central Washington University and member of the Washington State Commission on Hispanic Affairs, who chronicled the strikes and interviewed dozens of workers. The strikers held out for weeks, their fight demonstrating the nascent power of the region’s agricultural workers and the challenges they face in having their concerns heard.