Mushroom Workers Want a Union

Photograph Source: Pradejoniensis – CC BY-SA 3.0

The Yakima River runs southeast from the Cascade Mountains through central Washington state to merge with the Columbia a little north of Oregon. From the small city of Yakima on down, its course broadens from a winding canyon into a wide valley bounded by austere low ridges of gray-green sagebrush and tawny grasses. In mid-April, the new leaves of the willows and cottonwoods light up the riverbanks with luminous chartreuse.

De colores, de colores se visten los campos en la primavera …”
    “Colors, the fields are clothed with colors in the spring …”
    (From an old farm workers song)

The valley beyond the river bottom was once mostly semi-arid rangeland punctuated by basalt cliffs. But as irrigation systems spread across it in the early 20th Century, it morphed into rich farmlands. [Drennan 2013] Expanses of vineyards stretch across the valley and climb the hills. One part of the Yakima Valley Highway has been renamed “Wine Country Road”, and at intersections, signs point to wineries and tasting rooms.

De colores, de colores son los pajaritos que vienen de afuera …”
    “Colors, the little birds that come from far away are full of colors …”

Tall frameworks of wood and wire stand waiting for hop vines to grow up them. The Yakima Valley produces more than three-quarters of the hops grown in the United States. Apple and pear orchards are beginning to bloom. In fields of corn and beans, the first green shoots are just poking up.

Here and there, big center-pivot pipes are watering fields in circles. Along the highway, an irrigation canal snakes under the roadway. A little ways down the road, on the rusted silo of an abandoned farmstead, a hand-painted sign reads: “Land for sale, 19 acres, first water rights”.

De colores, de colores es el arcoíris que vemos lucir …”
    “Colors, the rainbow that we see shining is full of colors …”

Sunday after church, a pickup is parked on a country road next to a field of old corn from last year, three foot stalks with dried husks and cobs still on them. What looks like a family – a man, a woman, and four kids – is walking through the field, taking dried corn and stuffing it into cloth shoulder bags. Maybe they’re gleaning.

A little further down the road, a small, worn house, probably of farmworkers, sports a purple and yellow sign in the front yard: “A new UW Husky family”. Their kid is starting at the University of Washington, the state’s biggest public college.

… y por eso los grandes amores de muchos colores me gustan a mí.”
    “… and that’s why I like the great lovers of many colors.”

The town of Sunnyside drapes over a hill about 30 miles southeast of Yakima city. The town’s 16 thousand residents are 86 percent Hispanic, and Yakima County is over 52 percent, in a country where the Hispanic population is approaching one-fifth of the total and growing. Yearly per capita income in Sunnyside is $15,570 and the poverty rate is 18.6 percent, compared with $43,817 and 9.9 percent for the state of Washington. In other words, average yearly income here is a bit more than one-third that of the state, and poverty is almost twice as high. [U.S. Census Bureau. “QuickFacts”] In some neighborhoods, weather-beaten trailers perch on small lots in mobile-home parks. On top of the hill, the houses are bigger, with manicured lawns.

At the south end of town, across Interstate 82, Midvale Road is lined with industrial processing and service facilities for dairy, candy, feed, fertilizer and equipment. Massive white warehouses are buttressed by pipelines, silos, and cylindrical tanks. At the end of this agribusiness stronghold, rows of long white structures looking like opaque greenhouses are identified by a sign: “Windmill Farms”. Inside, on multi-level bins in windowless, climate-controlled rooms, mushrooms are growing. The delivery trucks parked outside the farm still have “Ostrom Farms”, the name of the previous owners, painted on their sides.

Along the road outside the mushroom farm one April afternoon, workers, their families, and their supporters walk a picket line. Big and small crimson flags bearing a black Aztec eagle on a white circle flutter in a stiff wind. Red, white, blue and green undulate as well: a young boy hoists an American flag as an older man waves the Mexican tricolor. Homemade signs say “We Feed You” and “La Union Es La Fuerza” (“The union is strength”). Another one reads: “Queremos unión – Protesta – United Farm Workers of Sunnyside – Tu derecho pero también tu obligación” (“We want a union – Protest – … – Your right but also your obligation”) in brown and red lettering centered around a clenched fist.

From a portable sound system, the Mexican ranchera (country) music of singer-songwriter Joan Sebastian and Los Tigres del Norte lends an upbeat accordion and guitar cadence to chants of “¡Si se puede!” (“Yes we can!”) and “¡Vamos a ganar! (“We’re going to win!”)

These mushroom workers are picketing Windmill Farms to demand that it right some flagrant wrongs that Ostrom Farms, the former owner, inflicted on its workers before selling the farm. The new owners, they say, have not remedied most of the problems.

Over a year ago, Ostrom workers began to raise complaints about working conditions, wages, and management with Ostrom. And they started working with organizers from the United Farm Workers union. When they got no response, 70 percent of them voted September 2022 to form a union to bargain with the company. Ostrom responded by laying off all its workers and selling the farm to an Ontario company, Windmill Farms, controlled by a Toronto-based private equity firm, Instar Asset Management. Windmill told the former workers that they could reapply to work there, but might have to accept new conditions restricting their workplace rights.

Before the sale, Ostrom had replaced most of its workers, who were predominantly Hispanic women living in the area, with male “guest workers” brought in from Mexico on H-2A temporary agricultural visas. H-2A workers have limited labor rights and can easily be fired and deported. A few of the original workers were hired back, but some not at their old jobs.

The workers and their supporters are demanding that Windmill rehire workers who were fired, address their grievances, recognize their union and bargain a contract with it. Members of other unions have come from around the state to show solidarity.

The president of the United Farm Workers, Teresa Romero, has come up from California to encourage the mushroom workers. The veteran labor leader takes the microphone and addresses the crowd in Spanish:

“We’re here today fighting for all of you. But we can’t do this without the support, without the leadership, that you’ve demonstrated. It’s not easy. Many of you have been fired for demanding your rights. But what I want to show you is that we’re going to keep fighting for the workers who are still inside and who are afraid. And the fear they feel is very justified because many of you were fired. But the important thing is that this is our cause, our struggle. Here we are and we’re not leaving! Thanks to all who are supporting us from outside of the farm workers movement, but who realize how hard it is to organize for workers in the fields.” (She repeats some of her speech in English.)

She ends her speech with ¡Sí, se puede! (“Yes, we can!”), the traditional farm workers grito. And the crowd continues cheering, “¡Sí, se puede!”.

Next, a 50ish man with a goatee and sunglasses, in a red baseball cap and blue windbreaker, smiles at the assembly. José Martínez was one of the leaders in forming the union. He was fired by Ostrom, but then rehired by Windmill. His Spanish is hoarse and passionate:

“I want to send a very clear message to the company: we don’t want to destroy you. The only thing we want is that you treat us with dignity, equality and respect as human beings. And to have a union, that’s what we’re fighting for. All together we will win. Thanks to all of you who have come from different places, states, to support our cause. We’ve begun to fight for this, and we won’t leave until we reach this goal. ¡Viva la causa! ¡Viva César Chávez! ¡Viva la unión! ¡Siempre pa’adelante!” (“Long live the cause! Long live Cesar Chavez! Long live the Union! Always forward!”)

Daniela Barajas, who follows Martínez, was fired by Ostrom but found a job with a different company. In forceful Spanish, she tells the crowd:

“We’ve just begun to fight, we’re here and we’re going to keep on going. Although I have more than a year that I’m not working in the mushroom farm. I was one of those who was fired, but I continue supporting them, for the people who are there, for their families, for those who don’t have jobs to feed their families. They have a right to better treatment at work. That’s why I’m here supporting them, and I’m not going away. I’m going to keep supporting them, and I invite all of you who want to build a movement like this to come and support them. Stay with us, because the struggle will continue. And we won’t leave here until they recognize a union there. The struggle will continue.”

Her speech is echoed by chants of: “¿Que queremos? ¡Unión!” (“What do we want? A union!”).

The union’s Secretary of Civic Action, Juanito Marcial, drove over with some other workers from the Seattle area, three hours to the west, to offer solidarity to the mushroom workers. The Chateau Sainte Michelle winery in Woodinville, Washington, where he works, is the site of the United Farm Workers’ first contract in the state. Workers won it in 1995 after an eight-year struggle, and it remains in force. [Rosales Castañeda 2009] Most of the UFW’s membership, however, is in California where the union began.

Marcial recalls that history in Spanish: “We’re here, the comrades who work at Sainte Michelle under a union contract. And I want to tell you that we now have an average of 27 years [under the contract], the only agricultural site that has a contract [with the UFW in Washington], and that we’re enjoying various benefits for workers. The workers here today are saying to the mushroom workers that you are not alone. And we’re saying to you, comrades, that this is just the first step, we can’t weaken. Hasta la victoria siempre!(Until victory always!)”

The Pacific Northwest Regional Director of the UFW, Victoria Ruddy, closes the rally by thanking the workers who are still standing and fighting after a year of struggle. “As don José says, ‘¡No vamos a parar hasta ganar unión!’ (‘We won’t stop until we win a union!’)’”

The crowd ambles over to a nearby park for a picnic to the tune of Joan Sebastian’s song, El Ilegal (The Illegal), on the sound system.

    Al norte llegué sin un centavo. Con dolor me alejé de mi país. …
    Qué hermosa es la Unión Americana, Illinois, California y Tennessee.
    Pero allá en mi tierra mexicana, un poquito de cielo es para mí.”

    “I arrived in the north without a cent. With grief I left my country. …
    How beautiful is the American Union, Illinois, California y Tennessee.
    But back in my Mexican land, a little bit of heaven is waiting for me.”

    - Joan Sebastian. “El Ilegal (Audio Oficial)”

New bosses, still no union

Signs at UFW rally, Sunnyside, Washington, April 18, 2023. Photos: Peter Costantini
Signs at UFW rally, Sunnyside, Washington, April 18, 2023. Photos: Peter Costantini.

The road that led the mushroom workers to their April 18 rally outside of Windmill Farms was riddled with corporate switchbacks and legal potholes.

In 2019, Ostrom Mushrooms closed a mushroom farm that it had run since the 1960s in Lacey, western Washington state, and laid off more than 200 workers. It moved its operations to Sunnyside, in central Washington. The firm received generous support from different levels of government to subsidize its move and construction of a new $60 million plant on 43 acres. The State of Washington included $1 million in its supplemental capital budget to offset construction costs for infrastructure at the Port of Sunnyside, which sold the property for the site to Ostrom. [Meyers 3/18/2018] Ostrom also received low-interest construction loans and an energy efficiency rebate from the U.S. Department of Agriculture and a local public electric utility. [Donofrio 1/30/2022]

In Sunnyside, Ostrom hired a new workforce of more than 200 workers, most of them Hispanic women living in the area. [Sundeen 6/24/2022] During peak harvest times, the operation employs about 300 workers, CEO Travis Wood told Joel Donofrio of the Yakima Herald-Republic. At the time, Wood complained of a shortage of labor. He pointed to the advantages of year-round work and controlled-climate conditions inside the facility as factors that ought to attract agricultural workers. [Donofrio 1/30/2022]

As an investigation by the Washington State Attorney General found, “In mid-2021, Ostrom hired new management to improve its production. This new management believed Ostrom needed to replace its largely female workforce because its female workers had childcare obligations and could not work late hours or weekends. Ostrom’s management decided to replace its domestic workforce with workers from the H-2A guest worker program.” [WA AGO 5/17/2023]

Over the ensuing months, the Ostrom employees began raising issues about their wages and working conditions with management. They elected a leadership committee to pursue their grievances. Organizers from the United Farm Workers began to consult with them, as did Columbia Legal Services, a non-profit organization.

In June 2022, the workers tried to submit a petition to Ostrom calling for “fair pay, safe working conditions, and respect”. It alleged that managers had threatened and bullied workers, instituted mandatory overtime shifts and raised production quotas to excessive levels, according to Jasper Kenzo Sundeen of the  Yakima Herald-Republic. Workers were overworked and undervalued, said Ostrom worker Joceline Castillo. “We’re done taking the hits, we’re going to hit back.” [Sundeen 9/18/2022]  But Ostrom management stonewalled the petition.

Meanwhile, in August 2022, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson filed a civil complaint against Ostrom under state laws. Ferguson accused Ostrom of discrimination and unfair employment practices because of employees’ sex, citizenship, or immigration status, and of retaliating against employees who opposed these violations. Ostrom had replaced most of its workers, who were local female residents, with male guest workers from Mexico, whose H-2A temporary visas give workers fewer labor protections. However, the H-2A program requires that the employer demonstrate that it cannot hire enough workers from the local workforce, which was evidently not the case, before bringing in foreign guest workers. [Yakima County Superior Court 5/16/2023]

The complaint also  charged Ostrom with “engaging in unfair and deceptive practices … by misleading actual and prospective domestic pickers with regard to job eligibility requirements, wages, and availability of employment.”

However, Ferguson was unable to directly address retaliation against union organizing or the use of H-2A workers to replace resident workers. These issues fall under federal law, while the state attorney general can enforce only state laws.

The National Labor Relations Act, the 1935 federal statute that regulates labor relations and union organizing, excludes farm workers and domestic workers from its coverage. So the Ostrom workers were not able to go through formal legal procedures for union recognition or to benefit from the law’s protection against retaliation for union organizing.

In September 2022 the workers announced that they had held a vote under the auspices of the UFW: seventy percent chose to form a union. They asked management to recognize their union and bargain with them on wages and working conditions. Ostrom refused.

The Ostrom workers and UFW organizers upped the ante in their campaign by marshalling community support. They continued periodic informational pickets at the Ostrom farm in Sunnyside. And in a reprise of the farm worker boycotts of the 1960s and 1970s, they began to ask consumers not to buy Ostrom mushrooms, but instead to seek out the mushrooms of two unionized farms in California. In November, workers demonstrated outside of Metropolitan Market, an upscale grocery store in Seattle, to highlight their efforts to form a union. [Hoang 12/8/2022]

In November, the State Department of Labor & Industries responded to a complaint and found working conditions at Ostrom that could cause injuries to workers, Daisy Zavala Magaña reported in the Seattle Times. The agency fined the grower only $4,000, a slap on the wrist, but another complaint was still being investigated. [Zavala 11/19/2022]

Then on February 14, the campaign hit a roadblock. According to the UFW, Ostrom Mushroom Farms management held a company-wide meeting with its workers to tell them that they were all fired immediately. As of that midnight, Ostrom’s Sunnyside facility would be sold to Greenwood Mushroom Sunnyside IA, LLC, a new entity owned by Windmill Farms, a corporation based in Ashburn, Ontario, Canada. Windmill also uses the Greenwood Mushrooms label at farms in Ontario and Pennsylvania. In turn, Windmill is owned by Instar Asset Management, a Toronto-based private equity firm.

The fired Ostrom workers were told they could reapply for jobs under the new management. But they would have to fill out new applications, possibly accept different jobs from their current ones, and sign arbitration agreements which would prevent suing the employer or unionizing.

The Windmill and former Ostrom workers pushed ahead with their campaign, despite more of them now being unemployed. Some of the original workers who were rehired complained that they ended up in worse jobs with lower pay.

Under Windmill Farms management, working conditions were still “pretty bad”, according to workers committee leader José Martínez, who had worked at Ostrom for three years. “They want you to go fast” to meet an hourly quota of picking 50 pounds mushrooms, he told me. “They put you on probation for 90 days. If you don’t make [the quota] they’re gonna let you go.” The biggest problem, though, is “there’s no communication with them. Sometimes one supervisor comes and tells you one thing, and then another one comes after and changes the whole thing.” His biggest hope, he said, was that “they accept the conditions the way we want, to have a union there and everything is gonna be fine.”

Just a few days after the rally, though, Martínez was fired by Windmill. Management claimed he wasn’t meeting production demands, he told Zavala. But he suspected he may have been fired because of his pro-union activism. [Zavala 5/17/2023]

Finally on May 16, the Washington State Attorney General’s Office announced that Ostrom and Greenwood, the new company owned by Windmill, had signed a consent decree. Without admitting guilt, Ostrom agreed to pay $3.4 million into a fund to compensate workers who suffered discrimination or retaliation for reporting it. The AGO “estimates that more than 170 workers are eligible for compensation,” Communications Director Brionna Aho told me in an email. In the agreement, Greenwood agreed to discontinue the “unfair and discriminatory employment practices” that the Attorney General identified under Ostrom, and established a framework for compliance training and monitoring to prevent future violations. [Yakima County Superior Court 5/16/2023]

“Ostrom’s systematic discrimination was calculated to force out female and Washington-based employees,” Ferguson said in a statement. “I want to thank the workers who spoke out against this discrimination in the face of so much danger and stood up for their rights. My team fought for them and today we secured an important victory.” [WA AGO 5/17/2023]

The settlement won substantial compensation for the workers and avoided a drawn-out court battle. But because it was based on state law, it could not compel recognition of the union or rehiring by Windmill of the workers fired by Ostrom, nor could it address the prohibited use of H-2A guest workers to replace resident workers. The AGO believes, however, that the U.S. Department of Labor, which approves businesses for the H-2A program, “is aware of our claims about Ostrom’s abuses of the H-2A program that gave rise to the AGO’s case under Washington state law.”

A worker still employed by Windmill, Isela Cabrera, told Jocelyn Sherman of the UFW: “We are in this fight, and we are not going to stop until we get a union contract. I am very happy for my coworkers who experienced humiliations and retaliations by Ostrom management. I hope this announcement [of the consent decree] will help begin to improve conditions at Windmill Farms – as this new management continues to commit favoritism and retaliation. We want our fired friends to get their jobs back and for Windmill Farms to recognize our union.” [Sherman 5/17/2023]

UFW President Romero told me that one focus of the union campaign will be on persuading Instar’s investors, some of whom may be union pension funds, to pressure Windmill Farms to recognize the union.

Putting the heft of the state movement behind the mushroom workers, the Washington State Labor Council (the state branch of the national AFL-CIO) and other unions announced the formation of a Solidarity Committee. April Sims, President of the WSLC, emphasized: “All workers deserve fair treatment at work and the freedom to join together to negotiate for better wages and working conditions. Workers at Windmill Farms are getting neither of those things. We are proud to stand in solidarity with these brave mushroom workers and we will fight side-by-side until we win a union contract at Windmill Farms.” [Groves 6/2/2023]
Catching a national wave of union organizing

Ostrom’s truck & Windmill Farms, Sunnyside, Washington, April 14, 2023. Photos: Peter Costantini
Windmill Farms & Ostrom’s truck, Sunnyside, Washington, April 14, 2023. Photos: Peter Costantini

The Ostrom / Windmill mushroom workers campaign joins a nascent national upswelling of union organizing across many industries. These initiatives, however, are swimming against half a century of economic and political riptides hostile to labor.

Union membership is at a nadir in the U.S. In 2022, only 10.1 percent of wage and salary workers were unionized, the lowest level recorded; [US BLS 1/19/2023] whereas in 1955, 33.2 percent were unionized, a ratio more than three times as high. [History Central “Labor Unions in the 60’s”] In the private sector, only 6.0 percent of workers now belong to unions. [US BLS 1/19/2023] Union activists are frequently though illegally fired for organizing, and workplace protections are often poorly enforced.

National labor laws continue to discriminate against agricultural and domestic workers. They were excluded from the labor reforms of the 1930s at the insistence of racist Southern lawmakers, because most workers in those two fields at the time were Black, Mexican or Filipino. This malignant relic of Jim Crow has never been excised, and the old free-range bigotry continues today oppressing low-wage workers in those industries. They are still mostly people of color, and among those workers most in need of strong labor protections. [US NPS no date]

If the former Ostrom workers had been in an industry other than agriculture or domestic work, though, they would have been covered by the National Labor Relations Act, which provides a legal framework for worker efforts to unionize and forbids retaliation. And if regulations on hiring temporary agricultural workers that require businesses to first show a dearth of local resident workers had been enforced, the Ostrom workers could not have been legally replaced by guest workers.

Despite these obstacles, a labor resurgence seems to be gaining momentum nationally, particularly among young and immigrant workers. In some service and other low-wage industries, organizing drives are proliferating. High-profile union campaigns at Starbucks, Amazon, Trader Joe’s, Recreational Equipment, and other major employers are making headlines. [Shierholz 1/19/2023] A 2022 Gallup opinion poll found that 71 percent of the U.S. public approve of labor unions, up from 48 percent in 2010 and 64 percent before the pandemic. [McCarthy 8/30/2022]

The Ostrom / Windmill campaign is also a protagonist in the renewed activism among agricultural workers. The United Farm Workers, founded by Cesar Chavez, Dolores Huerta, Larry Itliong and others in the early 1960s, recruited mainly Mexican and Filipino laborers up and down the West Coast. At its zenith in the 1960s and 1970s, it won numerous contracts and palpably improved conditions in the fields. Its boycotts of grapes, lettuce and wine from some producers expanded public awareness of the widespread exploitation and abuse of farmworkers by agribusiness. This community outreach also drew new activists into the movement around the country and trained them in organizing.

On the political front, the UFW spearheaded major improvements in labor laws, mainly in California. In 1975, a campaign led by the union won the state’s approval of the landmark Agricultural Labor Relations Act, which recognized farm workers’ right to organize. [NFWM 6/2018]

Over the next two decades the UFW’s organizing waned and membership shrank. But in this century, membership has reportedly doubled and the union has led new campaigns for farm worker rights and against wage theft and sexual harassment. [Perez 10/15/2020]

A few other states with progressive governments have also backfilled labor protections for farm workers and immigrants. In Washington state, a Democratic administration and legislature recently passed legislation guaranteeing that farm workers be paid at least the state minimum wage, which is currently $15.74 per hour, [WA DLI “Wages”] and time-and-a-half overtime pay for more than 40 hours worked weekly, starting next year. [WA DLI “Overtime”]

The 1995 UFW contract won by workers at Chateau Sainte Michelle, the big Seattle-area winery, is still in force today – as the union members at the Sunnyside rally testified. The former Ostrom workers are urging consumers to buy mushrooms grown instead on two California farms with UFW contracts. According to the union, over three-quarters of the fresh mushroom industry in California is unionized. Its contracts also cover thousands of workers on vegetable, berry, winery, tomato, and dairy farms in the West Coast states. [UFW web site, “Our Vision”]

Other unions as well have successfully organized farm workers in recent years. Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), [FUJ] an independent union based in northwestern Washington state, has won union contracts for berry and tulip workers, many of whom are Indigenous Mexicans. The Coalition of Immokalee Workers in Florida and farm worker organizations in a few other states have also won significant gains for their members. [Coalition of Immokalee Workers]

That black Aztec eagle in a white circle on a crimson flag may have to soar long and high outside of Windmill Farms and its owners’ offices to win a contract there. And the multi-colored banners of many unions may have to billow tirelessly outside of other farms, factories, mills and warehouses – and also city halls, statehouses and Congress – to construct livable work environments and ensure a decent living for all human beings who do “essential” work.

Yet despite the legal and political barriers erected against them, agricultural and other low-wage laborers are pursuing new strategies with old-fashioned grit to defend their workplace rights and build collective power.

¡No, no, no nos moverán! ¡No, no, no nos moverán!
    Como un árbol firme junto al río, ¡no nos moverán!”
    “We shall not, we shall not be moved! We shall not, we shall not be moved!
    Just like a tree that’s standing by the water, we shall not be moved!”
    (From an old farm workers song)

Jamelle Bouie. “Opinion: There Is One Group the Roberts Court Really Doesn’t Like”. New York Times, June 6, 2023.

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Yakima County Superior Court. “Consent Decree” between State of Washington and Ostrom Mushroom Farms, LLC/Asellus Sunnyside, LLC. Yakima, WA: filed May 16, 2023.

Daisy Zavala Magaña. “Ostrom Mushroom workers allege continued mistreatment amid AG lawsuit”. Seattle Times, November 19, 2022.

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Joan Baez. “De Colores”.

Joan Sebastian. “El Ilegal – Letra”.

Joan Baez. “No Nos Moverán”.

Peter Costantini is a Seattle-based analyst who has covered Latin America for the past three decades.