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Know the West

Farmworkers fight for higher pay, better hours and fair treatment

Labor advocates rallied in Seattle to demand a union contract from Windmill farms amid allegations of poor treatment and retaliation.

On a cool late August day just before Labor Day, dozens of farmworkers stood on the sidewalk along Seattle’s Mercer Street, facing traffic. The farmworkers’ cries of “Si se puede” — “Yes, it can be done,” a United Farm Workers chant — rose above the hiss of tires and the thrum of engines. Many wore red United Farm Workers shirts that stood out brightly against the dull concrete, glass and brick of central Seattle.


As cars honked, the workers cheered and whooped in reply. Dozens of farmworkers and their supporters had traveled roughly three hours from Sunnyside, Washington, where many of them worked, or formerly worked, picking mushrooms for Windmill Farms, a private mushroom grower based in Ontario, Canada, with facilities throughout North America. Together they formed a mile-long chain, waving red flags and holding up signs that stated their demands: for fair pay and better working conditions — and for Windmill Farms to recognize their union.

There are no federal laws that require employers to recognize farmworker unions, so it’s up to the individual employer. The majority of workers at the Sunnyside farm voted to unionize last year, when the farm was under different ownership. But the former owner refused to negotiate a contract, and so far, Windmill has followed suit. Mushroom pickers at Windmill’s Sunnyside location said they’ve had to work brutal 16-hour days and meet demanding hourly quotas under near-constant pressure from supervisors, even as some employees receive preferential treatment. They also fear retaliation for organizing. On Sept. 4, they sent the new owners a petition, asking them to change course and recognize their union.

Kenia Diaz, University of Washington alum and advocate involved with United Farm Workers’ student group at UW, marches with mushroom farm workers through Seattle, Washington, on August 31, 2023.
Michael Barkin

“They’re risking everything to make sure that their rights are respected.”

Around 300 people attended the action, including Teresa Romero, president of United Farm Workers, who gave a speech at the rally and stood with the workers, alongside farmworkers’ families, members of other unions and activists from Seattle and the Yakima Valley. “They’re risking everything to make sure that their rights are respected,” Romero told High Country News.

In an email to High Country News, Clay Taylor, president and CEO of Windmill, wrote that Windmill’s Sunnyside location has conducted business in compliance with all applicable laws and is committed to a workplace free of discrimination, harassment and retaliation. “These values are introduced to our employees at hiring and are fundamental to creating a positive work environment for our entire team at Sunnyside,” he wrote. When asked if he planned to recognize the union and begin contract negotiations, he responded that Windmill Farms has “an excellent relationship with our employees and see(s) no need for a third party to become involved.”

Wearing sunglasses and a red United Farm Workers shirt, Maria Lua, a mushroom picker at Windmill, paced up and down the sidewalk. She’d asked for the day off weeks ago, she said, and her request was approved. The previous day, however, her supervisor sent her a message, telling her to come to work.

She suspected that they’d found out about the rally. But she came anyway. “The truth is I don’t really know what’s going to happen,” she said in Spanish, adding that she believes Windmill has let workers go in retaliation for organizing. 

In an email, Taylor wrote that he “can absolutely assure you that no worker’s employment, would be or has been, terminated for attending any sort of rally or being involved with union activity.” So far, Lua has not faced any retaliation for her actions at the rally.

Two labor advocates wave United Farm Workers flags at the rally in Seattle on August 31.
Michael Barkin

Many of the farmworkers present were former employees of the farm’s previous owner, Ostrom Mushroom Farms, and no longer worked at the facility. Ostrom sold the farm to Windmill in February 2023, after the Washington State Office of the Attorney General sued Ostrom the previous August for gender discrimination and retaliation against employees who complained of unfair working conditions. The lawsuit stated that between early 2021 and May 2022, Ostrom terminated roughly 170 domestic workers, 85% of them women, and replaced them with male guest workers from the federal H2A temporary work visa program. Ostrom settled the lawsuit for $3.4 million. The terms reached by the settlement also explicitly prohibited retaliation against employees who speak out against unfair treatment. These terms pertain to the new owner, the attorney general’s office has said.

On Aug. 11, a federal investigation by the U.S. Department of Labor found Ostrom guilty of violating labor laws and stipulations of the H2A worker program throughout 2022, concluding that Ostrom had failed to pay workers the required wage or provide them with cooking facilities. The agency recovered $59,850 in lost wages and fined Ostrom an additional $74,642.

Farmworkers at the rally said that conditions at Windmill remain poor. “If anything, they’ve gotten worse,” Lua said. The workers said that some of the supervisors responsible for their poor treatment are still employed at Windmill. (Taylor wrote that as of February, Windmill Farms is not affiliated in any way with the previous owner, Ostrom, and cannot comment on the events that predate the purchase.) “The farm was owned initially by Ostrom,” Romero said in a speech at the rally. “But make no mistake, this is the same farm, these are the same workers, and this is the same struggle for justice.”

As the sun sank, giving Seattle a golden hue, the workers and their supporters, chanting and cheering and waving flags, marched to Counterbalance Park to listen to current and former Windmill employees.

“Windmill, it’s enough. Listen! It’s time for you to sit down with us to negotiate a contract so that the preferential treatment and retaliation ends,” Isela Cabrera, a former farmworker at Windmill Farms, said. Addressing the crowd in Spanish, she urged her co-workers to continue fighting: “Without us, the rich don’t eat.”

“Without us, the rich don’t eat.”

Adriana Corona, a former mushroom picker at Ostrom, said she was not hired at Windmill due to a hand injury she suffered on the job. (Taylor wrote that he could not comment on any individual worker’s situation.) Corona said that the rally had shaken away a lot of the depression that she felt earlier in the year after losing her job: Now, she said, “I feel free.”

Adriana Corona, a former farmworker at Ostrom Mushroom Farm, marches with a sign declaring “Union produce tastes better.”
Michael Barkin

Natalia Mesa is an editorial intern for High Country News based in Seattle, Washington, covering the Northwest. Email her at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor. See our letters to the editor policy.