Farmworker organizing in Washington is undoing discriminatory labor policies

‘The pandemic elevated the fact that farmworkers are killing themselves to keep our food system intact.’

 

A workers carries brussel sprouts during a harvest in Mount Vernon, Washington. A new law in Washington will phase in overtime payments for farmworkers over the next three years.
David Ryder/Bloomberg via Getty Images

Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept most people home and emptied supermarket shelves, U.S. farmworkers stayed on the job. Unable to work from home, they sustained their vital but dangerous industry. But they also organized for better working conditions and pay. In central Washington’s fertile Yakima Valley, workers at apple-processing warehouses led wildcat strikes last May and June, ultimately winning the right to form workers’ committees, obtain better personal protective equipment and earn higher wages.

 In November, dairy workers won a Washington State Supreme Court case that forced their employers to pay them for overtime work. Federal and state law exempt agricultural workers from certain labor protections, creating a vulnerable class of workers in an industry that depends on minority and migrant labor. The court ruled that the state law preventing overtime payments was unconstitutional.

On May 11, Gov. Jay Inslee, D, signed a bill codifying that decision. The law, which passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, will phase in overtime payments for farmworkers over the next three years. By 2024, agricultural laborers, like most hourly workers, will receive time-and-a-half wages for hours worked beyond 40 per week. Today, Washington has the most comprehensive overtime protection for farmworkers of any state.

Today, Washington has the most comprehensive overtime protection for farmworkers of any state.

For farmworker advocates, securing overtime pay is part of a rising wave of efforts aimed at undoing discriminatory labor and immigration policies. Similar legislation is under consideration in Oregon and Colorado as well as at the federal level. In a press release celebrating the Washington law, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass legislation addressing farmworker protections. “For too long — and owing in large part to unconscionable race-based exclusions put in place generations ago — farmworkers have been denied some of the most fundamental rights that workers in almost every other sector have long enjoyed,” Biden said. “It is long past time that we put all of America’s farmworkers on an equal footing with the rest of our national workforce.”

A week after the Washington law was signed, High Country News spoke with Victoria Ruddy, who lives in the Yakima Valley and is the Pacific Northwest regional director for the United Farm Workers (UFW), a nationwide agricultural worker union, and Elizabeth Strater, the UFW’s director of strategic campaigns, about organizing and what’s next for the movement. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.

High Country News: What was the driving force behind the overtime protections recently passed in Washington?

Victoria Ruddy: Farmworkers work in one of the most dangerous industries in the state. And I think that’s kind of the background of this lawsuit, and how we got to winning overtime pay. Farmworkers are regularly exposed to the elements and face wage theft and sexual harassment. They’re exposed to chemicals and toxins. They’re disproportionately likely to be killed or injured, or even get sick, which we saw during the pandemic, as farmworkers were getting sick and literally dying at work.

That’s really the foundation for farmworkers fighting to be treated as equals and to organize for justice. And that’s what they did here in Washington state. … It really is just about being treated as equals. It’s about health and safety. It’s about the fact that the human body isn’t designed to work 16 hours a day, or 70-plus hours in a week. 

Victoria Ruddy, the Pacific Northwest regional director for the UFW, and Elizabeth Strater, UFW’s director of strategic campaigns.

HCN: How did the pandemic impact farmworker organizing?

VR: I think the pandemic in general has empowered farmworkers. We did a lot of work with the H-2A (seasonal agricultural visa) workers, who were getting sick by the hundreds. A lot of those workers speaking up and elevating their voices is what was able to bring about a lot of the protections and emergency rules that came through last year. I think we do still have some of that momentum from the pandemic, and workers feeling empowered to talk about what was going on.

The pandemic elevated the fact that farmworkers are killing themselves to keep our food system intact. The fact that farmworkers were getting sick and dying to produce food for Americans during the pandemic was something that pushed people to have to think about where food comes from, and why it’s so important that we protect farmworkers.

HCN: How are Washington’s new overtime laws affecting farmworkers and their communities?

VR: A lot of the workers that we’re hearing from, particularly workers with families, are talking more about the impact on their family life and their children versus an economic impact. This is more than just economics. This is really about farmworkers having time to see their kids, to spend time with them, to do homework with them, to be home to rest, things like that. That’s what’s really on a lot of people’s minds. 

HCN: There have been a handful of voting rights cases in Yakima and the Tri-Cities area recently that have sought to balance racial representation in city government and counter the impacts of gerrymandering, which has left the majority Latino population underrepresented in local politics. How are these voting rights cases related to farmworker organizing?

The folks that are living in these rural communities that are Latino voters are far more likely to be folks that are working in jobs that are dispropor-tionately vulnerable to labor abuses. 

Elizabeth Strater: The two issues are intermingled in a really deep way. The folks that are living in these rural communities that are Latino voters are far more likely to be folks that are working in jobs that are disproportionately vulnerable to labor abuses. It’s not just one issue, it’s not just overtime, it’s not just the representation of the city council, it’s all part of the same big picture where these communities have just been systemically disenfranchised.

And it’s by design — we don’t need to be coy about it — it’s by design. It’s ultimately upholding a system of power that is based on exploitation and injustice. And you can trace it all the way back to slavery: Why do you think farmworkers are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act? Why don’t they have NLRB (National Labor Relations Board) rights? Because that’s work that’s traditionally associated with slavery, and there’s no way the Southern congressmen were going to pass it in the 1930s. (The federal Fair Labor Standards Act, which granted overtime pay to most workers but not farm laborers, was enacted in 1938.) And that’s why we’re still there.

HCN: How does Washington’s passage of overtime protections fit into the larger national context of farm labor organizing, and what’s next for this movement?

ES: If you look at the bipartisan and overwhelming vote in Washington state, that’s the writing on the wall. When you get those overwhelming bipartisan votes, (and) then that message of congratulations to Washington state from the president — President Biden reaching out saying this is a racist exclusion, it’s archaic, it’s time to right a historic wrong — these are all just showing that there’s this wider awareness of the moral question: Do farmworkers deserve the same basic rights as other people? Does any industry get to feel entitled to limitless labor from any one kind of body?

Two days after the bill signing in Washington, Rep. Raúl Grijalva, D-Ariz., reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, which is the federal overtime bill. You look at different state laws that are moving — and have some real momentum, like Oregon, like Colorado — (and) you also look at some of the federal signals that are coming, (and it’s) like this tipping point is being reached.

VR: We have a lot of support and organizing going on with our farmworker leaders here in the Yakima Valley, hundreds of leaders who are organizing folks around immigration reform. It really is so closely tied to labor rights, because when farmworkers feel like they’re safe to express their concerns, when they have a legal status and don’t feel like they’re going to be threatened with deportation if they speak up about sexual harassment, or about not having clean bathrooms, or not having hand-washing stations, or whatever the issue might be — they need legal status to be able to do that. 

I think farmers for too long have taken advantage of the fact that farmworkers are vulnerable because many of them don’t have legal status in this country. So I think that’s the next step. Farmworkers are essential, and they deserve to have legal status, and to not feel scared to talk about all the labor abuses that they’re experiencing at work every day.

Carl Segerstrom is an assistant editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest and the Northern Rockies from Spokane, Washington. Email him at [email protected] or submit a letter to the editor

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