A just transition for farmworkers

As agricultural laborers continue to bear the brunt of climate change, activists in Washington chart a new path for climate justice.

Victoria Ruddy paced in front of a pickup truck in the parking lot of a Bi-Mart discount store in Sunnyside, a farming town in the Yakima Valley, a vast semi-arid desert just east of the Cascades and the heart of Washington’s agricultural industry. It was barely 8 a.m., and the temperature was already in the 80s. Heat radiated off dirty concrete, mixing with gritty wildfire smoke to form an oppressive haze. About two dozen students, farmworkers and United Farm Workers Union staff stood nearby, loading gear into the truck. It was Aug. 12, 2021, and the second major record-shattering heat wave of the year had just struck the Pacific Northwest.

 

Over the next few days, temperatures crept into the triple digits. In Oregon, emergency rules to protect farmworkers go into effect when the heat index reaches 90 degrees Fahrenheit. In California, additional rules are triggered at 95 degrees. But in Washington, which is second only to California in producing labor-intensive crops like apples, asparagus, hops and berries, the mercury has to hit 100 before employers are required to provide shade or guarantee rest breaks. In an industry notorious for not complying with labor standards and workers’ rights statutes, Ruddy, the UFW’s regional director for the Pacific Northwest, was skeptical that those rules would be enforced. So she and the others had organized a heat caravan: They would visit farms around Sunnyside to hand out water, Gatorade, KN95 masks and information on avoiding heat-related illnesses.

Before they left, everyone gathered around the truck. It was now 85 degrees, and the ice in a large blue bucket in the back of the pickup had already started to melt. Ruddy looked out at the anxious, excited crowd, and read three names from a list.

“Ricardo Sotelo,” Ruddy said, naming a farmworker who died picking blueberries in Washington on June 30, 2015, in 107-degree heat. “Presente,” the crowd responded, their voices muffled by their face masks.

“Sebastian Francisco Perez,” she said, speaking more forcefully now, referring to a farmworker who died in Oregon on June 26, the day after his 38th birthday, while moving irrigation lines during the previous heat wave. “Presente,” the crowd called back, louder, angrier.

“Florencio Gueta Vargas,” Ruddy yelled, her voice firm and clear.

Presente!” the crowd shouted, their calls reaching a crescendo.

Gueta Vargas, a married father of six, had died only two weeks earlier outside the nearby city of Toppenish, under the kind of conditions climate scientists predict will become more common and extreme. He woke around 3:30 a.m. as usual, made coffee with cinnamon, pocketed the fresh tortillas his wife had made him, and drove to his job at Virgil Gamache Farms. He tended rows of hops, a crop notorious among farmworkers for being hard to work in high temperatures.

Hops are fast-growing leafy vines with pinecone-shaped buds, which contain a resin that gives beer its distinctive hazy citrus flavor. It’s a lucrative crop in the beer-obsessed Northwest; the Yakima Valley alone produces around three-quarters of the nation’s hops. But the plants also trap the sun’s warmth and humidity, raising the heat index by several degrees. There’s scant shade during the hottest part of the day, when the rows turn into sticky, humid tunnels of heat.

On July 29 — when almost all of eastern Washington was under a National Weather Service heat advisory — Gueta Vargas collapsed toward the end of his shift and died. The official cause was atherosclerotic disease, or problems with his arteries, but the coroner noted that environmental conditions were a contributing factor; it was around 101 degrees when he died.

GUETA VAGAS’ BACKGROUND resembles that of many of the roughly 200,000 farmworkers in Washington. He grew up on his family’s ranch outside of Zacatecas, Mexico, before leaving for the United States. He loved growing food; at the home he recently purchased in Wapato, Washington, he grew cabbage, cucumbers and spicy peppers next to the cherry tree his daughters had given him for Father’s Day.

Most of the food that people in the U.S. consume, from the apples and pears in our fruit baskets to the milk and eggs in our fridges, has likely been touched by someone like Gueta Vargas. The 2.5 million farmworkers in the U.S. form the backbone of the food system, but they also comprise one of the nation’s most disenfranchised groups of workers.

Rosalinda Guillén, a farmworker advocate, community organizer and founder of Community-to-Community Development, with one of her brother Miguel’s paintings at the C2C office in Bellingham, Washington.

Farmworkers have historically been denied labor rights, including overtime, paid breaks, health care and hazard pay. In the 1930s, policymakers drafting federal legislation on unionization and worker protections left out two crucial groups: agricultural workers and domestic workers. At the time, both were predominantly African American. By the mid-20th century, most migrant farmworkers in the West were Hispanic, in part due to the Bracero Program, a federal policy created during World War II that allowed millions of Mexicans to work in the U.S. on short-term contracts. Today, most farmworkers are migrants from Mexico or Central America. They’re still largely excluded from work-based injury or safety standards, and most lack basic protections, including workers’ compensation, health insurance and disability insurance.

Now, they face new hazards. Farmworkers are already around 35 times more likely to die from heat than other workers, and studies predict that climate change will almost double the number of dangerously hot workdays by 2050. And it’s not just the heat: Climate change is also driving bigger and more frequent wildfires, which release toxic fumes and fine particles that can aggravate asthma and respiratory illnesses.

Climate change will impact agriculture more than most industries, according to the United Nations. Extreme weather is already destroying crops and disrupting supply chains, and drought and water shortages will become increasingly common. Overall, climate change is expected to make food less available and more costly.

Industrial agriculture is also one of the main drivers of climate change, due to deforestation, shipping emissions and petroleum-based agrochemicals. According to some estimates, the food system is responsible for as much as 40% of global emissions. It does one thing really well: produce cheap food. But its long-term impacts are less palatable. Every dollar spent on food in the U.S. costs $2 in negative impacts on public health and the environment, according to a National Academy of Medicine study.

Every dollar spent on food in the U.S. costs $2 in negative impacts on public health and the environment.

“In order for the industry to keep up the profits that they are making, it means that the exploitation of the workers is going to increase and so is exploitation of the soil,” said Rosalinda Guillén, a farmworker advocate and the founder of Community-to-Community Development (C2C), a grassroots organization dedicated to food, economic and environmental justice led by women of color. “There is a way to make it better,” she said. But time is running out: A landmark 2019 report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change showed that massive changes in the global food system are necessary to avert catastrophe and adapt to climate change.

One way to enact that change is through climate justice: acknowledging the structural inequities farmworkers face and pushing for changes that benefit both laborers and the environment, with workers at the helm of decision making. In Washington, farmworkers, activists and labor organizers like Guillén are advocating for better oversight and worker protections and finding ways to involve farmworkers in state policy solutions.

Perhaps the most visible sign of change is the creation of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, the only independent farmworkers’ union in Washington, and Tierra y Libertad, a farmworker-owned cooperative. But the transition from farmworker to farmer has not been easy. The cooperative has had to face the realities of growing and selling food in a system designed to keep prices low, in part by exploiting the labor force. At the same time, it has had to contend with widespread racism and mistrust. Meanwhile, the pandemic and extreme weather have created yet more obstacles — even as they’ve made the need for systemic change that much clearer.

ON FEB. 10, 2020, around a hundred farmworkers packed into a hearing room at the Washington State Supreme Court building. It was standing room only, filled with legislators and the general public. The farmworkers shuffled nervously, both elated and proud at the chance to testify in Washington’s highest seat of justice, on topics ranging from pesticide exposure to sexual harassment to the effects of climate change. It was Latino Legislative Day, and the Seventh Annual Farmworkers Tribunal was just beginning. Two state judges were joined by three women, who would act as community judges; together, they would issue recommendations to state officials and the wider community based on the testimony they heard. Guillén, who founded the tribunals in 2014, acted as moderator.

She was no stranger to organizing. The daughter of farmworkers, she dropped out of school in 10th grade and followed the farmworker labor-camp circuit for almost a decade, then worked at a bank before joining the National Rainbow Coalition, a prominent multiracial political organization, in the mid-’80s. Through the coalition, she helped lead union organizing efforts in the 1990s, after farmworkers from Washington’s largest winery, Chateau Ste. Michelle, went on strike, protesting working conditions and a lack of protection from pesticides that were making them and their children sick. After eight years of boycotts and negotiations, the farmworkers won their first union contract. Guillén went on to work for the United Farm Workers in California, first as an organizer and then as a lobbyist.

She can look back now and laugh at memories of butting heads with industry lobbyists, but her time in Sacramento and Washington, D.C., revealed a disturbing truth about corporate agriculture. “They have their people in the halls of Congress fighting for everything the agricultural industry needs,” Guillén said. “And they don’t see us as human beings or equitable members of the community. We’re just another tool, like the tractors or the pesticides.”

Guillén knew better: Farmworkers are key to imagining a new future for agriculture. But before that future can be realized, the injustices of the past and present must be addressed. So Guillén started the annual tribunals to give farmworkers a way to testify about the conditions they face. It was inspired by the Peoples’ Tribunals, forums set up by grassroots and civil society organizations to adjudicate human rights abuses, famously used in Latin America to expose the crimes committed by military regimes.

“They don’t see us as human beings or equitable members of the community. We’re just another tool, like the tractors or the pesticides.”

Testimony given at Washington’s tribunal has already sparked a number of policy changes in the state, from an overtime law that was passed last year to the formation of a committee to regulate and monitor the rights of temporary agricultural workers.

Guillén’s views have been influenced by activists around the world. Along with two other people who were also at the 2020 tribunal — Ramón Torres and Edgar Franks — Guillén has been critical to the formation of the farmworkers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia and the cooperative Tierra y Libertad. The cooperative was inspired by the Landless Workers Movement, a mass social movement of rural workers in Brazil famous for occupying unused land and creating worker-owned cooperatives for sustainable food production.

“They taught me that it’s not just about the collective bargaining agreements and working within capitalism,” Guillén said. “It’s that the entire food system has to shift so that the human beings that are laboring in the food system are seen as human beings.” It spurred Guillén to return to Washington, where, for the last decade and a half, she’s been putting those principles into action.

Ramón Torres, president of the farmworkers' union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, at Tierra y Libertad, a 65-acre farmworker-owned cooperative in Everson, Washington.

AT THE WASHINGTON SUPREME COURT building, Ramón Torres stepped forward to give his testimony. Tall, with an easy smile and a fondness for flat-brimmed hats, he’s now the president of the union Familias Unidas por la Justicia. But back in 2013, he was just starting his second year of picking for Sakuma Brothers Berry Farm, a Skagit Valley farm owned by Driscoll, the world’s largest berry company, when hundreds of farmworkers began protesting their low pay. Torres helped them fight for three and a half years to form an independent union: Familias Unidas por la Justicia. The first farmworkers’ union to be recognized in almost three decades in the U.S., it remains one of only five in the country.

“We see our people suffer,” he told the tribunal’s judges. People who haven’t picked berries don’t know what it’s like, he said. “We pick in June, in the rain, on our knees — six years ago you couldn’t take breaks, leave work, until you finished blocks.”

Edgar Franks, the union’s policy director and a close friend of Torres, listened to his testimony. Franks is in his early 40s, with a bushy beard and a Fjällräven beanie that’s often pulled down to the gages in his ears. His family is originally from Reynosa, Mexico, and he moved from Texas to Mount Vernon, Washington, with his mother, a farmworker, when he was 6.

Franks was working at C2C, the food and environmental justice organization, when he was brought in to lead a boycott against Sakuma Brothers and Driscoll, which has a history of multiple allegations of labor abuses. He met Torres during the years of strikes and boycotts, and now they help run the union, which has grown to 500 members and functions as a de facto support organization for farmworkers all over Washington. Over the last several years, climate change has become a core issue. 

The summer of 2017 in particular stands out. That September, plumes of wildfire smoke hung over northern Washington from burning forests in British Columbia and across the Western U.S., prompting the governor to declare a state of emergency. “There was just smoke everywhere,” Franks said. “People were told to stay indoors and take precautions, but farmworkers were still out in the heat working.” Honesto Silva Ibarra, a father of three in his late 20s who came to the U.S. on a temporary agricultural-worker visa, was one of them; he died after working in triple-digit heat. A state investigation concluded that he died of natural causes, but found that the farm where he worked had violated labor requirements for rest breaks and scheduled meals.

While the impact of climate change on individual farmworkers is critical, Franks sees the union’s work as part of a much larger struggle. “We also need to be part of this larger transition away from dirty energy to regenerative,” he told me when I visited him at the union office in Burlington, Washington, in October.

This framework — a just transition — is the idea that when coal, oil and gas extraction are necessarily phased out to avoid catastrophic global warming, workers in the fossil fuel industry and communities whose health has often been impacted by fossil fuel production should not get left behind. Instead, they deserve to benefit from the green economy through retraining and inclusion in policymaking. Agriculture, Franks said, as a main driver of climate change, needs a just transition of its own — one guided by farmworkers.

Franks took this concept to Glasgow, Scotland, for the Conference of the Parties, or COP26, the annual United Nations conference on reducing global climate emissions, in November 2021. Franks was there as part of a multiracial delegation led by people on the frontlines of racial, housing and climate justice across the U.S. He said that a just transition was barely mentioned in the negotiations. Instead, delegates promoted more corporate solutions, like carbon capture, carbon markets and what the agricultural industry calls “climate smart agriculture” — seeds and practices that will support industrial-scale farming under increasingly uncertain climate conditions.

Edgar Franks, policy director of the farmworkers’ union Familias Unidas por la Justicia, at the union office in Burlington, Washington.

  

Franks didn’t seem too surprised. “The people that have access are always big companies that are defining and setting the rules,” he said. And as long as that’s the case, the union is crucial for changing the rules in a way that benefits farmworkers. “We got the wage rate for farmworkers, we got paid rest breaks and overtime, because of a union,” said Franks. But Familias Unidas por la Justicia isn’t the end point; it’s a catalyst toward a different and better future, one that farmworkers themselves should control. “They’re the ones who are in the mud, they’re in the heat,” said Franks. “Not the owners or the managers; it’s them. So they know firsthand the kind of work and labor that’s needed.”

TWO POSTERS STAND PROPPED up against a fence at the gate of Tierra y Libertad, or Land and Freedom, a 65-acre farmworker-owned cooperative in the northwest Washington town of Everson. On one of them, a man with a sombrero and an exuberant mustache welcomes visitors as purple blueberries and bright pink strawberries rain down behind him. Torres — the president of the union — co-founded the cooperative with support from C2C. He had recently broken his arm repairing a cistern and was still getting dressed when I visited in mid-September. Usually, a broken arm would spell doom for a farmworker: Without workers’ compensation or health care, they’d be out of a job and saddled with debt. Instead, Torres has been able to keep working, focusing on other tasks. His wife, several months pregnant, opened the gate for me, two friendly dogs bounding around her.

Torres told me that the idea for a cooperative came when they first began to form the union. The workers realized that there was no reason they couldn’t grow berries just as well or even better than their employers, using organic methods and treating laborers fairly. C2C helped them find and purchase land in the middle of Whatcom County, which produces about 85% of the red raspberries grown in the U.S. Overnight, five farmworkers went from working for less than minimum wage to being their own bosses.

But as we walked down a dirt path, past rows of quietly dying raspberry vines, Torres was honest about just how hard running the farm has been. They have faced racism and xenophobia, as well as a deep distrust of the change the cooperative signals. As organic farmers, they’ve found it almost impossible to compete with large berry farms that use agrochemicals and cheap labor. In 2018, Torres went to the local growers’ market to sell 20 acres’ worth of raspberries. Once buyers realized that he was the cooperative’s founder, they refused to deal with him. “They bought them from everybody else, just not us,” Torres said. All 20 acres of raspberries rotted in the fields.

Then the pandemic hit. COVID-19, like climate change, served to highlight the ongoing labor and racial inequities within the food system. Horrific accounts of employers forcing employees to work inside crowded, unventilated rooms and without protective equipment, gave way to stories of massive outbreaks and deaths in factories and plants all over the country. Washington Gov. Jay Inslee declared all agricultural workers essential in March 2020, but didn’t introduce a plan to keep them safe until two months later. By then, Yakima County had the highest per capita rate of COVID-19 infections on the entire West Coast.

That May, Torres and Franks received a call from some angry and frightened fruit warehouse workers in Yakima, whose bosses weren’t supplying proper protection. More than 400 workers from seven companies went on strike. Torres and Franks drove to Yakima to teach them how to form a union, vote for representatives and function as democratically and transparently as possible. It was a tense few months: Torres had to return to Whatcom County to tend to the farm, and Franks caught COVID-19. But the strikes were a success; the employers enacted some protections, and a group of warehouse workers eventually formed their own union, Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia — Workers United for Justice.

For the cooperative, the pandemic was yet another blow. Local companies bought some raspberries in 2020, but in 2021, the co-op decided not to grow any at all, Torres said. They still grow blueberries and have introduced chickens and goats. Recently, they bought a cow. But the farm is not yet financially self-sufficient; it stays afloat through grants, donations and selling directly to consumers through U-Pick.

As we walked toward a greenhouse in the distance, Torres told me that they’ve changed their goals. Their new aim is to plant and improve the farm so that, in five years’ time, five families will be able to make a living there and provide part of the capital to buy a new piece of land to start the process over again for more families.

We reached the greenhouse and stepped inside. The humid air was a pleasant 70 degrees Fahrenheit, and in front of me were rows of potted nopales, or prickly pear cactus, their round green spiked pads piled on top of each other, interspersed with dragon fruit vines climbing wooden stakes. Both are desert plants native to Mexico and adapted to dry environments — nothing like the crops typically grown in the Pacific Northwest. The fleshy pads and fruit of the nopales are treasured for their versatility, enjoyed fresh, cooked, pickled or preserved, while white or pink dragon fruit, dense and nutritious, is usually eaten raw.

“We don’t want to do what the big farmers are doing. Now we want to make our own decisions and create our own models.”

Torres grew the new fruits last year as an experiment, lining a greenhouse with potted plants. This year, he plans to put more greenhouses into production. Torres said there are already people that have committed to buying their current crop. “Everyone who gets into farming here always thinks of blueberries or raspberries, because it’s the only thing around here,” he said. But that market is saturated, with little to offer small farmers who want to produce a variety of crops, a necessity in a future defined by climate extremes.

He gestured in front of him, painting a vision of a field full of greenhouses stocked with diverse fruits and vegetables, run by workers that don’t have to risk their lives to earn a decent living. “This is a better option,” he said. “We don’t want to do what the big farmers are doing. Now we want to make our own decisions and create our own models.”

WHEN EDGAR FRANKS RETURNED from COP26 in mid-November, it had already started to rain. Over the next few days, an atmospheric river storm dumped record amounts of water over northwest Washington and British Columbia.

The massive floods that followed cut off towns and Indigenous reservations from the outside world. Sumas, an agricultural town in Whatcom County, was one of the worst-hit places in the U.S. More than 500 people had to be evacuated, and many farmworkers lost their documents and their homes. The flooding was the costliest disaster in Whatcom County’s history.

C2C, along with Familias Unidas por la Justicia, had planned a farmworker meeting for Nov. 18, a precursor to the next Farmworker Tribunal. They hoped to debrief the farmworkers on the Glasgow climate talks and discuss how to best advocate for wildfire smoke exposure rules for outdoor workers. Perhaps more importantly, Franks said, they also wanted to talk about the cooperative and the new economy they envision — a diverse regional economy of small farmers and cooperatives. One that would fundamentally change the way food is produced and valued, taking into account the true cost of production on workers and the environment, creating a system that is as just as it is sustainable.

The extreme weather shifted their plans. They spent the meeting talking about the community’s immediate needs: how to find housing for those displaced by floods in freezing temperatures, how to replace lost documents, how to get money to those who needed it but, because of their visa status, were not eligible for government support.

Six weeks later, around the new year, an extreme cold snap pushed temperatures to a record low around Everson and other areas hit hard by the flooding. Everything at Tierra y Libertad froze, including the cactus. Torres, who had been away for the holidays, came back to a greenhouse full of rotting stalks.

“It’s hard,” Torres told me in January, his voice sounding weary at the thought of how much work he had lost, and how much more it would take to get the farm running again. “But we know these kinds of things will continue to happen with climate change.” The only thing to do, he said, is not lose motivation. So Torres plans to fill the greenhouses with dragon fruit and nopales again this year, and he’ll try to prepare for a future where extreme heat and extreme fires are followed by equally extreme flooding and cold, the same future shared by all farmers. At least now, he and the other workers will be the ones making the decisions.   

Megaphones at Tierra y Libertad, a 65-acre farm worker-owned cooperative in Everson, Washington.

Sarah Sax is the climate justice fellow at High Country News currently living in rural Washington. Email her at [email protected]cn.org or submit a letter to the editor.

Reporting for this story was supported by the Society of Environmental Journalists.