Lawsuit to stop essential farm workers from working in Washington is harming farm workers now and could result in millions of tons of food waste at the worst possible time.
A lawsuit filed in Skagit County against Washington state is already harming efforts by farmers and state agencies to protect workers.
But if it succeeds Washington farmers will lose about 15,000 farm workers scheduled to help harvest fruit, hops, and wine grape crops in Washington state.
The activists behind this have failed in their effort to get Governor Inslee to halt seasonal guest workers and so have taken their extremely harmful action to court.
What’s behind this effort?
For years, Rosalinda Guillen, the activist behind a tiny farmworker union in northwest Washington, has claimed against all evidence that there are sufficient domestic farm workers to harvest Washington’s crops.
The “union” she created, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) has tried to stop Washington farmers from hiring legal guest workers. Under this federal program guest workers are given a visa to work on farms for a specified period of time.
Last year over 200,000 workers helped American farmers harvest crops. Washington state hires about 22,000 guest workers who make up from one third to one half of the state’s seasonal farm workers.
For years, Ms. Guillen and Ramon Torres, the “union” president, have fought against farmers in Washington state using guest workers.
Their unjustified attacks against a Japanese-American family-owned berry farm in Skagit County in 2014 forced the farm to stop using guest workers. Without sufficient domestic workers and facing loss of crops and potential bankruptcy, the farm agreed to a “union” contract.
We believe it remains the one and only contract FUJ holds, but as the group does not file federal documents required of unions, they likely do not qualify as a union.
They believe, as in the case of the Skagit farm, that by eliminating guest workers they can force farms into contracts which would allow them to take a percentage from farm workers’ paychecks.
How does this action threaten farm worker protections during the pandemic?
According to the Washington Farm Bureau, the action filed in Skagit County court, halts the work by the State Department of Labor & Industries to work with a crucial state appointed farm committee to update guidelines farmers and farm workers need to stay safe and healthy.
Mike LaPlant, president of Washington Farm Bureau stated in a press release:
“The timing of this lawsuit was purposeful and intentional,” said Mike LaPlant, president of Washington Farm Bureau. “These labor groups placed their own political interests over the needs, health and safety of the farmworkers they claim to represent.”
Farmers and state agencies have been working very hard and cooperatively to do the very best to protect farm employees. Our government leaders have declared them essential during the pandemic to maintain our food supply.
Like healthcare workers and others involved in food service, essential workers are exposed to additional risks but those risks have been limited by following strict safety guidelines.
Farmers and farm workers themselves explain the measures they are taking in these times at https://savefamilyfarming.org/blog/farmers-doing-their-part-to-protect-workers/.
Protection of farm workers includes the arrangements made by farmers and wafla, a non-profit farm worker services organization, to make certain workers with symptoms or who have tested positive have isolation living arrangement.
Farmers remain dedicated to providing a healthy workplace environment and intend to carefully monitor their employee’s health. They cannot, however be responsible for their employees actions outside of their working environment, as the activists seem to imply.
The focus on guest workers alone reveals the real intention of this lawsuit
FUJ and Rosalinda Guillen have repeatedly shown their interest is not the protection of farm workers, but only the elimination or restriction of guest workers.
As in the past, their calls for expanded worker protections during the pandemic applies only to guest workers, not domestic workers.
Their own union members are not subject to the extreme actions they are demanding relating to guest workers.
This is hypocritical and reveals that this lawsuit is driven by their longstanding political and income-generating agenda, not about protecting workers.
How will this affect Washington’s food production?
Do food consumers today want to see five billion or more Washington apples left to rot? Many Americans have been disturbed by reports from different parts of the country about fields full of food plowed under, milk being dumped, and empty aisles at grocery stores because of logistics problems or loss of contracts with food suppliers.
The extremists’ lawsuit could result in upwards of a million tons of Washington apples wasted. This does not include the massive loss of cherries, pears, hops, wine grapes and more.
Washington’s family farmers hire about 40,000 to 60,000 seasonal workers to grow and harvest a significant portion of $10 billion worth of food crops. Almost half of those are guest workers. Apple growers use about 70% of the guest workers and would be hardest hit by this action.
The lawsuit would impose new rules that would eliminate about half those guest workers jobs, plus thousands more domestic farm worker jobs.
That means that Washington farmers would be short about 15,000 workers.
For the state’s apple crop, where most guest workers are used, perhaps three fourths of the crop could be lost. Our apple growers produce about 3 million tons of apples per year––about 75% sold as fresh fruit, the rest as processed fruit, juices, etc. At 2000 pounds per ton, that means they produce about 6 billion pounds of apples.
At an average of five to six ounces per apple, over 16 billion apples are produced. If one third to one half of the necessary farm workers are prevented from harvesting these apples, it means we may lose four to five billion apples this year.
United Farm Workers’ support reveals their anti-worker and anti-farm political agenda
The United Farm Workers union (UFW) has joined with FUJ in this effort to stop guest workers from harvesting Washington crops. By doing so they are undermining their efforts to support worker opportunities and revealing a harmful political agenda.
UFW was a participant in the bill currently in Congress called the Farm Workforce Modernization Act that would improve the opportunities for farm workers including a path to citizenship.
By joining with the extremist labor group FUJ, they are demonstrating their interest is not in supporting jobs for farm workers and greater farm worker protections. They too apparently are seeking to limit access to farm employees.
UFW faces widespread rejection by farm workers in California, where they now represent less than one percent of the state’s farm workers. In addition, the union has lost court battles against their own employees who have successfully demonstrated that the union treats its own workers worse than the farms they attempt to unionize.
In 2017 the union had to pay out $1.1 million in penalties and lost wages, and another $800,000 in attorney fees as former union employees took them to court. Additional claims by former employees have been filed. The union has had far more votes to decertify the union than votes to certify in the past few years.
As the former CEO of Western Growers in California stated: “A union that justifies its political agenda by perpetuating myths about farmers mistreating their employees, has been found guilty of mistreating its own union employees by engaging in what amounts to wage theft.”
While the UFW along with FUJ try to convince lawmakers and the public that they speak for farm workers, the vast majority of farm workers want nothing to do with either group.
For more facts about why farm workers do not want UFW representation, go to https://savefamilyfarming.org/blog/category/farmworker-protection/farmworkers-voice/
Farmers hope that Washington state will protect workers and food production by vigorously opposing this outrageous lawsuit
The extremists’ lawsuit is against Washington state. They claim it is because the state has not done enough to protect workers. As pointed out above, these groups are aware that by taking this action they are preventing the state from working with farmers through a state committee to update safety guidelines.
Further, they are very aware that the state is defended by the Attorney General’s office and that Attorney General Bob Ferguson previously has made plain his support for the UFW and the extremist farm labor activists. While it may be understandable for him to solicit union support in his much-discussed campaign for governor, but this Attorney General has shown harmful disregard for the future of farming in Washington state.
For example, the EPA’s Office of Inspector General determined that the infamous “What’s Upstream” campaign against farmers constituted state lobbying, but Attorney General Ferguson refused to enforce our state’s campaign laws against the organizers.
His aggressive legal actions against those holding political positions counter to his while protecting violators with a strong record of political contributions to his campaigns raises serious questions that he will defend Washington’s consumers, farmers and farm workers against this extremely harmful legal action.