Oregon and Washington fruit packers vote to unionize fails
Nearly 60% of the workers voted against joining the United Food and Commercial Workers union.
Pears move through a processing and packing facility in Wapato, Washington. (U.S. Food and Drug Administration)
This article was first published by the Oregon Capital Chronicle.
One of the first and largest attempts to unionize fruit packers in the region in recent years has failed.
A total of 328 employees of Washington-based Mount Adams Fruit voted Monday and Tuesday on unionizing with the United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000. About 59% voted “no” and 41% voted in favor. Many of the workers are immigrants and organizers were largely Latina women who had worked at the plant for decades. The 50,000-member union, the largest private-sector labor group in the area, represents workers in grocery, retail, health care, food processing, meat-packing and other industries across Washington, northeast Oregon and northern Idaho.
Many Mount Adams employees, who pack apples, pears and cherries at three facilities in Odell, Oregon; Bingen, Washington; and Dallesport, Washington said their complaints about poor treatment and discrimination have not been addressed and that the company has failed to follow through on promised wage increases and requests to take time off have gone unmet. And some said they were subject to unsafe conditions. The company’s CEO Doug Gibson said complaints were unfounded and that the union effort was being led by a small group of employees who do not represent most workers.
Maricela Barajas, 62, a union organizer who has worked at the Bingen facility for 33 years, and Mercedes Sanchez, 59, an organizer who has worked at the Bingen facility for 36 years, expressed sadness about the vote in interviews with the Capital Chronicle on Wednesday.
“To be honest, I feel a bit deceived,” said Sanchez. “We had a lot of support going into the vote, and then many people seemed to vote against the union.”
Barajas said she held back tears at work on Wednesday. “We fought so hard for many months,” she said. The effort had been a multi-year process.
Gibson told the Capital Chronicle the vote affirmed that most Mount Adams fruit packers do not want a union, but that it also revealed a need to improve communication with staff.
“It’s an opportunity to reset, and for managers and employees to work better together. The ones who wanted to unionize – we respect their interests and want to listen to their needs,” he said.
Barajas said Gibson and company leaders had reached out to her and other employees to schedule a meeting, though a date has not been set. She does not know if the meeting is punitive or if it is to discuss issues the union organizers brought up, she said.
Workers in Bingen and Dallesport pushed for unionization, but the 60 workers at the company’s newly acquired Odell plant were included in the vote following a last minute request from Gibson to the National Labor Relations Board. Kristina Storm, director of the union, said including those workers at the last minute likely played out in the company’s favor. Union organizers were given about a week to contact Odell employees and try to convince them to join the union.
“They’re amazing, courageous workers who just wanted to improve their working conditions,” Storm said of the employees who organized. “They fought pretty hard, and at the end of the day, it didn’t go their way.”
Storm and several employees alleged that the company was attempting to intimidate employees by hiring security guards to oversee the voting. She said the union will investigate several claims of harassment and intimidation surrounding the vote and will file charges with the National Labor Relations Board if they find merit to the claims.
“That may not be that intimidating to other groups, but for an immigrant community, that tends to be a little bit more intimidating,” Storm said of the presence of security guards. “I think that tactics like that end up being really difficult to overcome.”
Gibson claimed hiring security guards was meant to make employees feel safe.
“The union that Kristina represents has a history of coming on property and really trying to sway votes,” he said. “We wanted to make sure that our employees felt safe and secure to be able to vote the way they wanted to. Employees having the free choice is important to us.”
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