Militant Journalism

Windmill Mushroom Farm workers march in Seattle to highlight abuse, demand union recognition

On August 27, after driving three hours from Yakima Valley, Windmill Mushroom Farm workers, along with members of the United Farm Workers union, hosted an event in the Beacon Hill Food Forest, the largest public food forest in the country. The farm workers and UFW members were there to call public attention to the abuses committed not only by the previous owners of the mushroom farm, who faced legal repercussions for their unfair practices, but also the current owners. Despite the misery these workers have endured for the past few years, they spoke of the need for future public support with resolve.

After longtime participants in the UFW struggle performed two working-class songs, the first in Spanish and the second in English, attendees were led by a Beacon Hill Food Forest member through the grounds to view the many different fruits, nuts, and vegetables available for public consumption and harvest. The workers were delighted and inspired by the potential of organized agricultural workers to truly treat the ailments of local communities.

The workers then began their march through the Beacon Hill neighborhood to El Centro de la Raza, a progressive organization and community center whose famous location was fought for and won after months of struggle in 1972. Marchers chanted “Sí se puede! (Yes we can!),” “El pueblo unido jamás será vencido! (The people united will never be defeated)” and “Windmill escucha! Estamos en la lucha! (Windmill listen! We are in the struggle!)” In response, the horns of passing cars blared, onlookers cheered, and others joined in the chants, all in support of the farm workers.

Once at El Centro, workers related the abuses they suffered and their desire for dignity.

A continuing history of abuse and a struggle for union representation

The workers’ accounts reiterated what began in 2021, when the farm was still Ostrom Mushroom Farm. The majority of the workers were locals, with their total number hovering around 117 — about 87% women. Over the course of the next year, the women in the workforce were fired at much higher rates than the men for a supposed inability to meet production demands. What many of the workers noticed was the increase of male workers coming in on the H-2A Visa, a worker status with fewer labor rights. According to the testimonies of many of the local workers, many of the H-2A workers seemed to be minors working far more hours than allowed under their visa. This was just one violation.

By April 2022, Ostrom hired 65 H-2A workers, 97% of whom were male, only employing about 50 local workers, reducing the female workforce by over 60%. As Maya Cruz, a UFW member at the August 26 action, put it, “The company that became Windmill Farms, Ostrom, fired over 70% of their female workforce and opted to replace them with men by putting out ads for men on Facebook. They overall do not want women working at their farm.”

Furthermore, as Paulina Núñez recounted, the layoffs were clearly targeted at demographics that management believed were incapable of meeting production demands, such as pregnant women and older people. When confronting management about being fired despite having met the productivity expectations, Núñez and many others like her were simply told they had failed to meet them.

When workers voiced their concerns, they were met by threats of retaliation, and in one documented case, physical assault. Despite the fear of immediate retaliation, 70% of the workers voted for unionization a little over a year ago, demonstrating overwhelming support for organizing. The response from Ostrom was to sell off their farm to Windmill Farms and immediately fire all staff. Workers were told by the new owners they could reapply, but that there might be new conditions they would have to agree to concerning workplace rights. 

One such victim of the senseless mass firing, Adriana Coronado said, “I hurt myself February 6th this year at the company. On February 14th, they called us into a meeting where they informed us that Ostrom had sold the company to Windmill Farms. Unfortunately the new company didn’t give me a job, they fired me. They told me that when I was healthy, I could apply to return. I worked in cleaning, but the job they were offering me was harvesting.”

Ostrom was sold to Windmill Farms in February, during a civil rights lawsuit filed Aug. 17, 2022, by state Attorney General Bob Ferguson, charging the company with discrimination against workers based on gender, citizenship and immigration status, violating the Washington Law Against Discrimination. Further, Ostrom was charged with misrepresenting requirements for employment and wages through its advertisements, which violates the Washington Consumer Protection Act. 

On May 17, Ferguson announced a fine of $3.4 million against the original owners for discrimination. With this ongoing struggle, the mental toll that both current workers and fired workers have taken is apparent. As Gloria Solís stated, “I ask that the union come in there because of all the injustices that we are seeing with our coworkers. For whatever reason, they call us into the office and fire us. They don’t even give us a chance for two or three days. To be honest I’m mentally marked, since I haven’t worked, I need to pay bills and they don’t pay themselves. So if the union comes in, then of course I would want to return to my job and go on to the next day.”

U.S. labor law excludes agricultural workers 

Since the passage of the National Labor Relations Act of 1935, domestic workers and agricultural workers have been specifically excluded from the federal law that grants employees the right to form or join unions and engage in protected, concerted activities to address or improve working conditions. Additionally, the Fair Labor Standards Act of 1938, which established various rights for workers, including a federal minimum wage and prohibitions regarding child labor, also excludes agricultural workers. 

This was an intentional decision by policy makers rooted in racism, sexism, xenophobia and the desire to superexploit mostly Black, Mexican and Filipino workers, which continues to have detrimental consequences today. Thus, the Ostrom workers are unable to go through normal legal procedures that would help them gain union recognition. Ostrom, now Windmill Farms, has no obligation to recognize the workers’ demands and union. 

With all the odds set against them, Isela Cabrera, at the August 26 action, stated very clearly their simple demands: “I am only asking for the support for a union contract, so that they respect our rights as workers, as essential as we are, so that they get rid of the abusive supervisors for all the harassment, retaliation, and favoritism. I ask for a union, more than anything, to reiterate, so that they respect our rights, and so that all of our coworkers that were fired unjustly are returned to their jobs.”

To win the right to a union despite the racist exclusion of farm workers from labor law, these workers organize public support. In Seattle, the public has the opportunity to demonstrate solidarity with the mushroom farm workers by signing this pledge

In addition, on August 31, right outside of Seattle Center, the workers and ex-workers of Windmill/Ostrom Mushroom Farms and members of the UFW will be led by UFW President Teresa Romero to create a mile-long human billboard from 4 to 6 p.m. to highlight their demands for union recognition and for public consumption of mushrooms from only unionized firms. Since agricultural workers are at such a disadvantage in labor struggles, the publicizing of the union and a boycott of Windmill Mushroom Farms would be pivotal for an ultimate recognition of the union. Until then, these workers will remain strong.

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