Last year, when the COVID-19 pandemic kept most people at home and emptied supermarket shelves, U.S. farm workers stayed on the job. Unable to work from home, they supported their vital but dangerous industry. But they also organized themselves for better working conditions and better wages. In the fertile Yakima Valley of central Washington, apple processing workers warehouses have gone on wildcat strikes last May and June, finally gaining the right to form workers’ committees, obtain better personal protective equipment and earn higher wages.
In November, dairy workers won a lawsuit in the Washington State Supreme Court that forced their employers to pay them for overtime. Federal and state laws exempt agricultural workers from certain labor protections, creating a vulnerable class of workers in an industry that relies on minority and migrant labor. The court ruled that the state law prohibiting the payment of overtime was unconstitutional.
On May 11, Governor Jay Inslee, D, signed a bill codifying this decision. The law, which was passed with an overwhelming bipartisan majority, will gradually introduce overtime payment for farm workers over the next three years. By 2024, farm workers, like most hourly workers, will be paid one-and-a-half time for hours worked in excess of 40 hours per week. Today, Washington offers the most comprehensive overtime protection for farm workers of any state.
Today, Washington offers the most comprehensive overtime protection for farm workers of any state.
For agricultural worker advocates, guaranteeing overtime pay is part of a growing wave of efforts to overturn 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 Washington’s law, President Joe Biden urged Congress to pass legislation dealing with the protection of farm workers. âFor too long – and in large part due to unwarranted racial exclusions put in place generations ago – agricultural workers have been denied some of the most basic rights long enjoyed by workers in almost every other sector. Biden said. “It is high time we put all American farm workers on an equal footing with the rest of our national workforce.”
A week after the signing of Washington’s law, High Country News spoke with Victoria Ruddy, who lives in the Yakima Valley and is the Pacific Northwest Regional Director for United Farm Workers (UFW), a national union of farm workers, and Elizabeth Strater, director of strategic campaigns for the ‘UFW, on the organization and the next steps in the movement. This conversation has been edited for clarity and length.
High Country News: What was the driving force behind the overtime protections recently enacted in Washington?
Victoria Ruddy: Farm workers work in one of the state’s most dangerous industries. And I think that’s kind of the background to this trial, and how we came to earn overtime pay. Farm workers are regularly exposed to the elements and face wage theft and sexual harassment. They are exposed to chemicals and toxins. They are disproportionately at risk of being killed or injured or even falling ill, which we saw during the pandemic, as farm workers literally got sick and died on the job.
It is truly the foundation of agricultural workers who fight to be treated equally and to organize for justice. And that’s what they did here in Washington State. â¦ It is simply a matter of being treated on an equal footing. It is a matter of health and safety. This is the fact that the human body is not designed to work 16 hours a day, or more than 70 hours a week.
HCN: What has been the impact of the pandemic on the organization of agricultural workers?
VR: I think the pandemic in general has empowered farm workers. We worked a lot with the workers of the H-2A (seasonal agricultural visa), who were falling ill by the hundreds. Many of these workers speaking up and raising their voices are what put in place many of the protections and emergency rules adopted last year. I think we still have some of that momentum from the pandemic and workers feel empowered to talk about what was going on.
The pandemic has increased the fact that farm workers are committing suicide to keep our food system intact. The fact that farm workers were getting sick and dying to produce food for Americans during the pandemic has made people think about where food comes from and why it is so important to protect them. agricultural workers.
HCN: How do Washington’s new overtime laws affect farm workers and their communities?
VR: Many of the workers we hear from, especially those with families, talk more about the impact on their family life and their children than on the economic impact. It’s not just about economics. They’re actually farm workers who have time to see their kids, spend time with them, do their homework with them, be home to rest, things like that. That’s what really worries a lot of people.
HCN: Recently, there have been a handful of voting rights cases in Yakima and the Tri-Cities region that have sought to balance racial representation in city government and counter the impacts of gerrymandering, which has left the predominantly Latino population under-represented in local politics. How are these cases of voting rights linked to the organization of agricultural workers?
People who live in these rural communities who are Latino voters are much more likely to be people who work in jobs who are disproportionately vulnerable to labor abuse.
Elizabeth Strater: The two problems are intertwined in a very deep way. People who live in these rural communities who are Latino voters are much more likely to be people who work in jobs who are disproportionately vulnerable to labor abuse. It is not only a problem, it is not only the overtime, it is not only the representation of the city council, it is all part of the same big picture where these communities have just been systematically deprived of their rights.
And it’s by design – we don’t need to be shy about it – it’s by design. Ultimately, it is about maintaining a power system based on exploitation and injustice. And you can go back to slavery: why do you think farm workers are excluded from the Fair Labor Standards Act? Why don’t they have the rights of the NLRB (National Labor Relations Board)? Because it’s a job that’s traditionally associated with slavery, and there’s no way Southern Congressmen could pass it in the 1930s. (Federal Fair Labor Standards Act , which provided overtime pay to most workers, but not farm workers, was enacted in 1938.) And that’s why we’re still here.
HCN: How does Washington’s adoption of overtime protection fit into the larger national context of farm labor organization, and what follows?
ES: If you look at the overwhelming bipartisan vote in Washington state, it’s the writing on the wall. When you get those damning bipartisan votes, (and) then that congratulatory message to Washington State from the President – President Biden reaching out and saying this is a racist exclusion, it is archaic, it is time to right a historic wrong – all of this only shows that there is this broader awareness of the moral question: Do agricultural workers deserve the same basic rights as others? Does an industry have the right to unlimited work from any type of organization?
Two days after the bill was signed in Washington, Representative RaÃºl Grijalva, D-Ariz., Reintroduced the Fairness for Farm Workers Act, which is the federal overtime bill. You look at different state laws that evolve – and have real momentum, like Oregon, like Colorado – (and) you also look at some of the federal signals coming in, (and it’s) like this point of tilting was reached.
VR: We have a lot of support and organizing going on with our farm worker leaders here in the Yakima Valley, hundreds of leaders who are organizing people around immigration reform. It’s really so closely related to workers’ rights, because when farm workers feel safe to voice their concerns, when they have legal status and they don’t feel like they’re going to be threatened. eviction if they talk about sexual harassment, or not having clean bathrooms, or not having handwashing stations, or whatever the problem – they need legal status to be able to do it.
I think farmers have for too long taken advantage of the fact that agricultural workers are vulnerable because many of them do not have legal status in this country. So I think that’s the next step. Farm workers are essential and they deserve to have legal status and not be afraid to talk about all the labor abuse they endure on the job every day.
Carl Segerstrom is Associate Editor at High Country News, covering Alaska, the Pacific Northwest, and the Rockies north of Spokane, Washington. Email him at [emailÂ protected] or submit a letter to the editor. Follow @carlschirps