Union organizers focus on blaming farmers for worker’s deaths may be harming workers

Every death from the pandemic is a terrible tragedy. But, it is simply wrong to try to exploit these tragedies for the purpose of financial and political gain. United Farm Workers (UFW) and Familias Unidas por las Justicia (FUJ), two competing farmworker unions in Washington state are doing just that.

The loss of two farmworkers at one of the largest fruit growing operations in the state and nation, Gebbers Farms, is the latest of several examples. These groups blame farmers for not protecting workers and thereby causing their deaths. Media reports typically repeat these lies without serious fact checking. One example is the June 29 article in Crosscut that claimed in the headline that farmworkers were “sacrificial lambs.”

The union organizers want the reporters, public and lawmakers to believe it is the farm work that is causing the deaths of these workers. The facts show otherwise. Most farmworkers are Latino and the Latino population in the US has been especially hit hard by Covid-19. There have been a number of explanations for this, but it has clearly emerged that while farmworker protections on the job have been effective, these do not protect them from community transmission off the job.

In California, for example, Governor Newsom commented on the uneven distribution of illness among the state farmworkers:

“As Gov. Gavin Newsom detailed Friday, there are many reasons Latino workers, including farmworkers who make up 93% of the state’s agricultural laborers, are bearing the brunt of California’s cases. Farmworkers in particular often live in crowded housing, sharing space with other families. Many are transported to job sites in packed vans, and they have little access to healthcare, including testing, and personal protective equipment. When they fall ill, the realities of lost wages may drive them to work anyway, exposing others.”

That may apply to California, but Washington has some of the most stringent farmworker protections of any state involving housing, transportation, protective equipment, access to healthcare, etc.

In Washington, despite false accusations by union leaders, facts on the ground show that community transmission, not farmwork, is behind the higher than average illnesses among this population. The Seattle Times in a June 22 report at the height of the large spike in cases in Yakima County made clear, even in the headline, that community transmission was the driver of these illnesses. It included this information from a Yakima health official:

“Lilian Bravo, of the Yakima County Health District, said the county does not determine whether workers were exposed to the virus at work or elsewhere. Still, she said, ‘We definitely think the majority is community spread.’”

Crosscut’s reporter McCarty missed some very important facts in her June 29 report including that as of June 25 there were 833 cases of Covid in farmworkers in Yakima out of a total of 6,736 cases. In Yakima, 14% of the population works in agriculture but 12.4% of the Covid cases are farm workers––Latino and other. These data support the position of the health experts that Yakima’s infection rate is a community issue and activists (and reporters) who blame farmers are ill-informed or dishonest.

In another county in the state where a substantial number of farmworkers are employed, the health department determined that none of the illnesses among workers at one farm were work related.

In the case of the two deaths among farmworkers at Gebbers Farms, it appears that even the assumption of one of the deaths from Covid-19 might be premature. The Wenatchee World reported:

“Earl Edwards had been doing seasonal work at Gebbers Farms for more than 10 years. He first showed signs of possible COVID-19 illness on July 21, and after visiting a doctor, went into quarantine in separate lodging the company has set up for those who may be sick with the disease caused by the novel coronavirus.

A company spokesperson said workers in the quarantine facility are checked at least twice daily, and that earlier Friday, Edwards appeared to be doing well, did not have a fever or show other COVID-19 symptoms. But later he was found unresponsive.”

The facts about farmworker illnesses do not deter union activists from making their accusations against farmers nor deter reporters and publishers who rely on emotions like anger and outrage to attract readers and viewers. One example is the fact that Rosalinda Guillen, founder of FUJ, has consistently accused a blueberry farm of causing the death of a worker in 2017, despite a Medical Examiner’s report and in-depth investigation of the accusation by the Department of Labor & Industries. The worker died of natural causes and the investigation showed the farm management did all they could to assist the worker. The facts have not changed the narrative Guillen continues to spin.

These accusations and the reporters complicit in amplifying them have their intended effect. In the case of the farm just mentioned, while the state cleared the farm of wrongdoing in the death of the worker, they levied a massive $149,000 fine for a few late rest breaks. State officials said “publicity” was behind the record fine. In the case of Gebbers, the state jumped in and issued demands that suggested the farm was guilty and if demands were not met they could face criminal charges. This, despite the fact that the farm’s applications for variances allowed under the Emergency Rules were ignored by the state and the state twice inspected the farm and its worker safety protocols without finding any fault.

With this kind of responsiveness to malicious false accusations, it is no wonder that both the United Farm Workers’ Erik Nicholson and Rosalinda Guillen of FUJ stick with their strategy of horrific accusations against farmers.

It remains to be seen if the two deaths at Gebbers were work related. It is most likely, based on health experts and other media reports, that the illnesses were a result of community transmission. Gebbers Farms is a very respected sixth generation family farm with a long history of leadership among farmers and within the community. They have published details of their extensive efforts to protect their employees from Covid-19 including an infectious disease specialist to prepare detailed protection plans. This was well before the state issued rules to protect workers. There is no credible evidence that safety rules were not followed. Indeed, there is very credible evidence that the farm did an outstanding job of implementing rules and protecting workers. A July 18 letter to Gebbers from Dr. John McCarthy of the Okanogan County Public Health Department stated:

“ Community Health Director for Okanogan County Public Health, has informed me that Gebbers Farms’ COVID-19 protocols and implementation of those protocols have been impeccable, and that Gebbers Farms has fostered a great working relationship with Okanogan County Public Health. She has also informed me that Gebbers Farms began implementing COVID-19 protocols before any other growers in the Okanogan County area. I commend Gebbers Farms in taking its early and diligent action and in implementing stringent COVID-19 protocols.”

Should the leading local health officials be believed about Gebbers Farms, or union organizers?

The goal of Guillen even prior to forming FUJ has been to stop all guest workers from working in the state. Guest workers are foreign workers with temporary legal visas hired for a season, mostly from Mexico. The state employs about 25,000 guest workers and could not harvest fruit crops without them. Guillen’s protests against farms hiring guest workers have been effective, particularly when the state agency and media reports amplify her lies. The farm accused of killing a worker no longer hires guest workers and converted to machine harvesting with the loss of about 400 jobs. Another farm in Skagit County signed the one and only contract with FUJ after two years of false media reports and consumer boycotts. Guillen believes that by making the farm labor shortage even more dire and demonizing farmers in the eyes of the government and consumers, she can force farms into signing contracts that allow her to take money from workers’ paychecks.

Guillen’s accusations and protests have been shown to be harmful to workers. Workers paying her union dues would be paid more and have more protections if the farm employed even a few guest workers. Domestic workers are given the same benefits and protections as guest workers when the farm hires guest workers. That includes the highest minimum wage paid to farmworkers in the nation when working in Washington state. More than taking pay from workers, her activities have resulted in the loss of hundreds of jobs.

Accusations by FUJ and UFW are likely harming workers now by inappropriately shifting state agency and public attention away from the community transmission problem that has been shown to be the real issue among the Latino community.

In the case of Gebbers, it is Erik Nicholson of UFW that is making the false accusations. In recent litigation FUJ brought aimed at stopping guest workers from harvesting our fruit crops, Nicholson and FUJ leaders and attorneys traded accusations with each claiming the other lied.

Nicholson and UFW have a long history of demonizing farmers and getting media attention to false accusations. The only way for a union to extract money from workers’ paychecks in this state is to force farmers into signing contracts with the union. Nicholson attempted to force dairy farms in the state into these contracts through a ten year long lawsuit against a dairy farm in Eastern Washington. Media reports carried the vicious accusations, almost all of which were dropped from the lawsuit shortly before going into court. Then Nicholson walked away from the lawsuit entirely with nothing to show for it and declared “victory.

The UFW has turned to Washington state from California because farmworkers in California have almost universally rejected this once highly respected union. Now, fewer than one percent of California’s farmworkers are represented because almost all workers once under the union have voted the union out. For good reason. California courts had to take union dues from the few remaining workers to pay a $2 million settlement brought by former union organizers against the union. This for failing to pay the workers and for retaliation when one organized a union of union employees! Nicholson’s false accusations against Gebbers and other farms are an outstanding example of the pot and the kettle.

The facts don’t deter state leaders from giving Nicholson a platform from which to pursue his financial and political goals. Governor Inslee even credited Nicholson for “crafting” the emergency worker safety rules. Unfortunately, while many of the rules were positive and helpful and perhaps have contributed to the protection of workers from on the job exposure discussed above, too many seem more aimed at providing a basis for media-amplified accusations and legal action than protecting workers. Farmers like Gebbers and the vast majority of other farmers across the state are working exceptionally hard under challenging circumstances to protect their valuable workers, both domestic and guest. It is a sad commentary on the state of our state and the media that rather than drawing attention to the facts and the great work being done, officials and reporters alike are responding instead to the cynical attacks on farmers driven by financial motives.