Packinghouse workers strike vs. bosses & COVID-19

By Jim McMahan
May 28, 2020

The International Action Center salutes all the brave protesters in Minneapolis, currently ground zero against police terror. We also salute those activists in Los Angeles, Memphis and other cities who are organizing protests and braving the pandemic to be in the streets or in car caravans to show solidarity with the demand: Justice for George Floyd and all victims of police violence.

The corporate media call the May 27 protest in Minneapolis a “riot.” In a speech on March 14, 1968, the Rev. Dr. Martin Luther King Jr. defined that term, saying, “A riot is the language of the unheard.” Following his assassination less than a month later,  Black people rose up in hundreds of cities in righteous protest. They were heard.

So was the Black population of Minneapolis. During the May 27 action, community members broke the windows and slashed the tires of a long line of police cars while arrogant cops drove them. The community, united in action, raised one powerful voice to say: “We are all George Floyd” — meaning that any one of them could wind up a victim of a police lynching at any place or time.

The protests responded to the March 25 videotaped lynching of a Black man, George Floyd.  Everyone who watched the video saw a white racist cop, Derek Chauvin, choke Floyd to death with his knee as he was begging for his mother and his life while three other cops, Thomas Lane, Tou Thao and J. Alexander Kueng, did nothing to stop this atrocity.

Fruit packers in Washington state are in their third week on strike.

At least 400 workers have stayed out on strike for safety for more than two weeks — a great feat because they don’t yet have unions. Workers have formed a caravan with many women in the lead and march from one packinghouse to another to encourage others to march out.

They are protesting the high rate of COVID-19 infections and the lack of safety equipment and measures in the packinghouses. Scores of workers have become infected. They demand face masks, sanitization, plastic shields on packing lines and testing. They are also demanding hazard pay — usually an extra $2-an-hour — for being essential, frontline workers. They now earn only the Washington state minimum wage of $13.50 an hour.

Yakima County now has 500 cases of COVID-19 in agriculture-related industries alone. And the agricultural season is just getting underway.

In the face of this, the Trump administration acted for the bosses and against the workers. On May 18, the Food and Drug Administration and the Department of Agriculture ruled that the Defense Production Act could be invoked to keep the plants open, even if that meant overriding closure actions called by local officials. (Seattle Times, May 23)

Nevertheless, on Friday, May 22, the workers at Monson Fruit reached a new labor agreement — a victory for the workers’ movement. Their five-worker negotiating committee gained an agreement for sanitization, social distancing and enforcement,  and worker safety. The committee will continue to negotiate for fair wage increases as they go back to work.

The state, which has always defended the agribusiness bosses, was forced to set up testing for COVID-19 at the picket line outside one of the packinghouses. As this article is written, strikes continue at five packinghouses.

The workers have been assisted throughout by representatives of Familias Unidas por la Justicia/Families United for Justice — a 400-member union of berry field workers and workers in solidarity.

Workers filed an unfair labor practice complaint with the National Labor Relations Board on May 19 against Allan Brothers packinghouse. Also, two workers went on a hunger strike for justice against Allan Brothers.

“If we’re essential, as recognized by law,” one of them asked, “why aren’t they giving us the pay we’re asking for?”