WENATCHEE (Washington) WORLD

September 14, 2017

 

Quincy orchard strike ends, with strings dangling

 

By Jefferson Robbins

 

QUINCY — Immigrant laborers at a Quincy orchard went back to picking fruit Thursdayafter a multi-day work stoppage, winning the removal of a controversial supervisor and the reinstatement of three fired workers.

 

Seventeen of the orchard’s estimated 25 laborers, Mexican immigrants employed under an H-2A work visa contract, ceased work for five of the last eight days as they negotiated with Larson Fruit Co. Larson, the Selah-based owner of W&L Orchards nine miles southwest of Quincy, signed an agreement late Wednesday to reinstate the three fired employees, reassign an orchard supervisor accused of bullying and threatening behavior, and refrain from retaliation against strikers, such as a refusal to hire them in the future.

 

But the agreement also calls on wafla, the consulting nonprofit that helped Larson Fruit hire the immigrant laborers, to agree to the non-retaliation language. Peter Spadoni, a Wenatchee-based attorney for wafla, said the agency is not a party to the agreement and will not sign on.

“The employment arrangement is between Larson and these people, and wafla is not trying to get involved in it at all,” Spadoni said. 

 

The majority of W&L Orchard workers entered the United States under H-2A agricultural work visas, which are granted when an employer anticipates a need for seasonal hires from outside the country because of local labor shortages. H-2A via holders may work in the U.S. no more than 10 months per year, followed by a two-month return to their home countries. The W&L laborers commenced work in February; most of them hail from Nayarit, Mexico.

 

As harvest work commenced, the farmworkers complained that orchard supervisors bullied and threatened them with deportation if they did not speed up their productivity. They also said they were provided insufficient water and bathroom facilities, accused of drug use without evidence, and denied medical attention for injuries or time off for illness.

 

The employees first staged a walk-off Sept. 6 and 7, then returned to work Sept. 8. On Sept. 9, Larson Fruit fired three of them in what workers believed was a retaliatory measure. The firm’s chief financial officer, Micah Dunstan, denied that was the grounds.

 

The strike renewed Monday. The workers partnered with the Burlington-based farmworkers union Familias Unidas por la Justicia to negotiate with Larson, and won an agreement in principal on Tuesday. Joe Morrison, an attorney with Columbia Legal Services in Wenatchee, helped hammer out the written agreement Wednesday, which Larson Fruit owner Keith Larson signed.

 

“They don’t agree that anything illegal has happened, but they’ve reversed course on a lot of actions they took,” Morrison said of the company “… Larson has held up their end of the bargain.”

 

Dunstan said Thursday the state Department of Labor and Industries has visited the orchard “several times over the last couple of weeks” and has not notified Larson of any significant problems. Asked if the strike puts the W&L Orchard behind schedule for harvest, Dunstan said, “Slightly, but we’ll manage.”

 

The written memorandum allows workers to set up an internal committee to communicate with Larson Fruit, repays workers for toiletry and cleaning supplies they had to buy out of pocket for their cabins, and allows for improved documentation of how many bins each employee fills per day. It also affirms that Larson Fruit “will not permit retaliation against anyone who has made complaints or participated in the work stoppage.”

 

Wafla, formerly the Washington Farm Labor Association, acted as Larson’s agent in the H-2A hiring for W&L Orchard, although Larson’s human resources director signed the final contracts. The new orcharding agreement requires Larson to instruct wafla to comply with the non-retaliation language, and asks wafla to agree not to “blacklist” the strikers for future hiring.

 

Morrison said wafla’s refusal to endorse that provision endangers the work agreement.  “It’s extremely frustrating at this point. I don’t know right now what will happen, whether the workers will go back on strike or what.

 

But this was a significant provision, and we spent a significant part of yesterday discussing and trying to figure out what the proper language was.”

 

In an email statement, wafla executive director Dan Fazio wrote, “Wafla generally has no role in recruiting or selecting workers, did not recruit these workers, and played no role whatsoever in negotiating this agreement.”

 

Spadoni said the association only acted as agent for Larson Fruit’s initial hiring contract, and it would be inappropriate to join the new worksite pact.

 

“Wafla acts as a consultant to various companies that do H-2A work and tries to help those companies set up those H-2A contracts,” he said.

 

“Wafla doesn’t hire anybody.”