The fruit packing workers of Allan Brothers Fruit Inc. officially launched their strike on May 7, 2020. With the help of Community 2 Community Development (C2C), a food justice nonprofit organization based in Bellingham, Washington, and Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) an independent farmworkers union, strikers stood right outside the production line where for 10 hours a day, workers pick, sort, pack, and ship apples. By that time, Angelina “Angie” Lara and many other workers had already contracted COVID-19 and/or were starting to experience symptoms. Despite an outbreak at the company, Allan Brothers was not providing any safety gear or masks, and machines were not being sanitized. The next day, Lara had learned that she had tested positive for COVID-19. When she alerted the company of her positive result, Allan Brothers ghosted her.
“Nobody said, ‘Angie, there’s this type of help or these types of benefits for you,’” said Lara, who is the vice president of Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia (TUJ), which is based in Yakima, Washington.
Allan Brothers never reported the high number of workers that were contracting COVID-19. This strike was just the beginning of the long journey to launch TUJ/ Workers United for Justice, an independent labor union made up of workers at Allan Brothers fighting for better rights.
“When you see how we work sometimes, we look like robots,” said Lara. “People were getting sick, not just from COVID, but from stress, from depression, anxiety, body aches. The company was only focused on protecting us from COVID, but where’s the rest?”
One the first day of the strike, Lara recalls anAllan Brothers supervisor coming out and telling the fruit packing workers to go home and that everyone would have the opportunity to talk about this. “I remember the supervisor saying, ‘We’ll pay you for the day, but go home and think about what you are doing,’” said Lara, “He was talking to us as if we were crazy and should be grateful to even have this work.”
For the first three days, workers were allowed on the premises of the company to demonstrate. On the fourth day, the workers were told they could not protest at the company. On the fifth day, strikers were told they could no longer protest in front of the company. Next, the company began calling the police on workers and making false accusations against them. Allan Brothers then got the city of Yakima to take away the parking privileges of workers. According to Lara, Allan Brothers then went to great lengths to close the park across the highway to disrupt the strike. At one point, workers were walking half an hour each way from where they were parking to their protest site. The strike lasted a total of 22 days.
“They really ran us down out there,” said Lara, who identifies as Mexican American. “I’ve never known racism like I’ve experienced out here. We are replaceable, period.”
For the few fruit packing workers who were working during the strike, Allan Brothers was handing out one mask a week. It was only after strikers contacted the health department and told them how unsafe it was did Allan Brothers finally start making some of the necessary changes needed to protect workers. The company finally started giving workers one mask a day, installed more hand washing stations, and put up plastic dividers between stations.
Around late July, Lara and other Allan Brothers workers realized a union needed to be formed because none of their demands were being taken seriously. Workers needed benefits, better working conditions, and better pay, and not just because of COVID-19. One of the biggest issues that workers face is the use of chemical pesticides.
“Depending on the weather, the use of toxics and pesticides in the production of food affects us as farm workers,” said Rosalinda Guillen, executive director of C2C. “When you’re talking about environmental justice, for us, it’s a big component of improving the lives of farmworkers.”
Although TUJ is registered with the state, it had to hold an election in order to be recognized in the company. The election started on Nov. 23 and lasted one month. On Dec.29, the ballots were counted, but the union lost.
“Instead of giving their employees more money, [Allan Brothers] invested in union breakers, disguised as consultants,” said Lara.
Throughout the past few months, union breakers have been using intimidation tactics such as telling workers they would get fired if they did not have legal papers and falsely claiming the union would charge expensive initiation fees. Every time the union attempted to share information around the company, they were greeted with hostility and faced the spread of misinformation, as well as backlash for speaking out.
“When you’re seen as an advocate for farmworker rights, including raising wages and pesticides protections, there is retaliation that is going to come back to you. Workers will be blacklisted by other farmers and you could lose your job,” said Guillen.
For Lara, it was especially hard to see people who she had personal relationships with turn their back on her.
“There are people who have urinated in their underwear because they were unable to go to the restroom [who] still voted for the company in the election,” said Lara.
TUJ plans to challenge the election results, but if unsuccessful will have to wait a whole year for the new election cycle. The majority of the Allan Brothers workforce is of Mexican heritage.
“This is to make a change for our own people,” said Lara.
The strike and formation of TUJ has inspired workers from other warehouses to stand up, too. Vegetable packing workers from Twin City Foods in Ellensburg, Washington, came out on strike in September. They were backed by United Food and Commercial Workers (UFCW) and wanted to get the union implemented in the company. The vegetable packing workers called TUJ for help and won the company-wide election. UFCW is now a recognized union at Twin City Foods. For Lara, this journey has been difficult, but energizing. With the support of donation funds, the union will open its first office to further drive this mission.
“What we’re really proud of is the fact that this is the formation of the second farmer workers union in the state of Washington,” said Guillen.
C2C supported the formation of Familia Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) back in 1986. Guillen notes the importance of the amount of growth in self-determination and leadership among a number of farm workers. TUJ is engaging in its own advocacy. On Jan. 30, TUJ held a “resources for field workers drive” where they distributed gift certificates and masks to workers at 23 different wineries and fields to continue spreading the work about their efforts. TUJ is working hard for the continued humanization of farm workers.
“We’re gonna continue fighting because this is not over,” Lara said.