Chants of “¡Sí se pudo!” filled the air Thursday afternoon outside Columbia Reach Pack.
The chant, which can be translated as “Yes, we did!” marked the end of a series of strikes at fruit plants in the Yakima Valley over coronavirus protections.
Columbia Reach workers and the company reached a deal Thursday afternoon.
In a signed agreement provided to the Yakima Herald-Republic by workers, the company agreed to provide personal protective equipment at no charge, comply with all government standards and implement best practices to prevent the spread of COVID-19. The company also said it would not expect employees to work in a way that would endanger health and safety.
Finally, to address a concern that workers expressed during the entire strike, the company said there would be no retaliation against workers and that supervisors would receive training “when necessary and appropriate.”
“I feel like we have to the power to change things,” said Rosalinda Gonzalez, who has worked for the company for 19 years and was part of a worker-appointed committee that submitted requests to the company.
Columbia Reach Pack was the last plant with workers on strike after the protests began at Allan Bros. in Naches on May 7. Signed agreements were reached at four plants — Columbia Reach, Allan Bros., Matson Fruit and Monson Fruit, both in Selah. Frosty Packing employees returned to work after the company offered a bonus program. Most of the employees who participated in a strike in Hansen Fruit also returned to work.
Unlike agreements at the other plants, the one at Columbia Reach was negotiated without a single in-person meeting between workers and company officials. It was based on requests in a petition sent to company officials.
Workers said the company agreed to terms after hearing about the possibility of legal action. Workers at other plants had pursued legal action based on their employers’ responses. The agreement at Allan Bros. came a week after workers filed an unfair practices complaint with the National Labor Relations Board.
Columbia Reach did not return a phone call seeking comment.
Regardless, Columbia Reach workers were happy to have an agreement and said they plan to hold the company accountable.
“If they don’t fulfill their part of the agreement, we can make demands; we can fight back,” said Rosa Maria Paniagua, 41, who has worked for the company for a year.
Gonazlez, the long-time Columbia Reach worker, said the workers’ committee plans to stick together when they return to work.
“We’re like a family now,” she said.
The workers who participated in strikes over the last five weeks gained new skills and tools to assert their rights, said Edgar Franks, political director for Familias Unidas por la Justicia, a farmworkers union in Skagit County.
The union has been in the Yakima Valley since May 8 to support striking workers, providing information about worker rights and how to organize.
“Now they know what steps should be taken to correct wrongs,” he said.
Franks said he and union president Ramon Torres plan to stay in the Yakima Valley for about another month to keep an eye on how packing house workers fare during the busy cherry season. They will also be checking in on Yakima Valley orchard workers.
Last week, the union filed a lawsuit against the state Department of Health and the state Department of Labor and Industries over their emergency rules for farmworker housing. The union took issue with the allowance of bunk beds, with restrictions. The union said that bunk beds do not meet science-based social distancing recommendations.
“It’s going to be a busy summer,” Franks aid.
EDITOR’S NOTE: This story has been updated with additional information about the settlement.