QUINCY, Wash. — Several H-2A-visa foreign guestworkers who went on strike at a Quincy orchard are back at work with assurances they won’t be retaliated against but with no guarantee of work next year.
Seventeen of approximately 27 H-2A workers at W&L Orchards nine miles southwest of Quincy quit picking Gala apples for five days in protest of alleged bullying by a supervisor for allegedly not working fast enough. There were other complaints about working conditions.
“They took advantage of our open door policy and brought their complaints to us and we listened and were happy to be able to address their concerns and get everyone moving forward again,” said Keith Larson, president of Larson Fruit Co., Selah, which owns W&L.
In response to their complaints there were multiple state Department of Labor & Industries inspections and “no serious violations brought to our attention,” Larson said.
Three workers who were fired have been reinstated and a different person has been put in supervision of the crew, said Larson, who declined comment on the validity of the complaints.
An agreement was worked out between the workers and the company. Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) and Columbia Legal Services helped the workers, Larson said.
FUJ is a Burlington farmworkers union that started in 2013 to represent workers at Sakuma Bros. berry farm in Burlington.
Larson Fruit agreed to not retaliate against or blacklist the workers, may hire them back next year if they do good work but there are no guarantees, Larson said.
Larson Fruit hired the workers from Mexico with the help of the Olympia-based farm labor association WAFLA.
The association hires firms to recruit H-2A workers in Mexico, arranges their visas and transports them to the employer who hires them. WAFLA has arranged hirings of probably about 10,000 H-2A workers this year.
Dan Fazio, WAFLA director, said the workers who struck at W&L came from the same state in Mexico and apparently were friends or relatives of H-2A workers who struck at Sarbanand Farms, a blueberry farm in Sumas, after a 28-year-old H-2A worker died there in early August apparently from pre-existing conditions.
Sumas is on the Canadian border about 45 miles north of Burlington. WAFLA is not involved with the blueberry farm, Fazio said.
Joe Morrison, Columbia Legal Services attorney in Wenatchee, said there is no evidence the Quincy strike was in sympathy or connected with the strike in Sumas.
Morrison said he and FUJ were both involved in Sumas and Quincy but that workers in Quincy approached Larson with grievances before he and FUJ were involved.
Complaints in Quincy and Sumas were similar about abusive foremen and work conditions.
“Sumas should have been a wake up call to the industry, that a company should listen instead of doing what they did in Sumas which is to fire people. A month later in Quincy, Larson and WAFLA didn’t learn from that. They followed the same play book and to me that’s incredibly disturbing,” Morrison said.
The workers in Quincy presented grievances to Larson Fruit on Sept. 6. On Sept. 7 a Larson employee and a WAFLA employee visited the orchard and said a list would be prepared of those who could work and those who could go back to Mexico, Morrison said.
Fearful for their jobs the whole group went back to work, Morrison said.
On Sept. 8 state L&I inspectors arrived at the workers’ request. On Sept. 9 Larson fired three workers and then all the workers went on strike again, he said. FUJ helped workers in negotiations with Larson and the company reversed course, reinstated fired workers, changed the foreman and signed an agreement, Morrison said.
“We were just motivated to get everyone back to work. We have a crop to pick,” Larson said.
He declined comment on whether worker grievances were valid or contrived by union agitation.
“Does Larson or WAFLA have any proof FUJ was there to trump up stuff? Why, if this was trumped up, would Larson rehire them?” Morrison asked.
A Larson Fruit Co. attorney told WAFLA that FUJ wanted WAFLA to sign Larson’s agreement with its workers, Fazio said.
“Normally, you don’t sign an agreement where you’re not a party to the dispute and are not at the negotiating table,” he said, explaining WAFLA did not sign.
“I think the workers wanted a guarantee to be hired through WAFLA next year if Larson did not hire them,” Fazio said. “The H-2A program is a great deal for workers and Washington employers have a well-deserved reputation as tops in the nation. I understand the workers’ concern.”
Morrison said either Fazio doesn’t trust his lawyer or his client or doesn’t want to pledge that WAFLA won’t retaliate.
“Independent studies show there is rampant blacklisting in Mexico in recruiting H-2A workers of anyone who has complained about working conditions in the U.S.,” Morrison said.
“That’s absolutely false. We don’t blacklist,” Fazio said.
“A union tactic is to get workers to slow down,” he said. “My fear is the workers won’t do a good job. Larson won’t want them back and if I sign the agreement that Morrison will be looking for a way to sue.”