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National Perspective | FARMING

Wash. Workers Seek to Reap More Fruit for Their Labors

September 06, 2000|KIM MURPHY | TIMES STAFF WRITER

SEATTLE — The sun-dappled orchards of eastern Washington--which produce 94% of America's apple exports--are growing more than just apples these days.

Workers gearing up for the backbreaking work of the harvest later this month have been eyeing the economy on the other side of the Cascade Mountains--the bonanza of Internet start-ups and stock options that have put more millionaires per capita in Seattle than anywhere in the nation.

As a result, what's growing in eastern Washington is a big dose of resentment--and a number of labor actions over issues ranging from wage structures to farm worker housing that could threaten the $4-billion-a-year apple harvest.

"The gap between urban wealth and rural poverty is getting larger all the time, and nowhere in the nation is the gap more severe than in Washington state," the Rev. John Boonstra of the Washington Assn. of Churches said recently.

Pickers Bring Battle to Seattle Market

The economic divide was crossed last week when a dozen striking workers from the rural Yakima Valley climbed into a van and drove over the mountains to Seattle's Pike Place Market, the upscale fruit-and-vegetable mart that's a stopping point for urban shoppers and tourists alike.

"The people that produced this beautiful fruit are now engaged in a desperate labor struggle to try to keep wage rollbacks from taking effect," United Farm Workers director Lupe Gamboa said as dozens of Mexican American workers shouted "Unity!" and held signs proclaiming "Say no to indentured servitude."

At issue, farm workers say, is a move over the last several years to pay pickers by the hour, rather than by the amount of fruit they harvest. Highly skilled pickers can see their wages reduced by 50% or more, Gamboa said, especially where growers have set pay at the minimum wage of $6.50 an hour.

But growers say there has been relatively little movement in a wage structure that traditionally has been split between an hourly and a piece rate--depending on the type of apple picked. And they contend overall compensation levels have been rising, not shrinking.

But wage structures aren't the only thing bringing workers out of the fields and into the streets.

There are growing demands for amnesty for the thousands of Mexican families who have worked the fields, often for years, without legal immigration documents. And Washington state has only begun to address concerns over migrant worker housing. Until this year, when high-quality tents began to appear in the orchards, migrant workers often had to camp out in their cars or sleep along nearby rivers for months at a time.

The U.S. and Mexican governments also are addressing complaints filed under the North American Free Trade Agreement that accuse the Washington apple industry of violating labor rights and threatening the health and safety of migrant workers.

The UFW and the Teamsters have been actively organizing in the fields and packinghouses over the last few years, giving voice to the growing sense of militancy.

In early August, 4,000 farm workers marched down a state highway near the small farming town of Mattawa.

But last week's rally brought the issue into the heart of Seattle, where field workers in rough jeans and cowboy hats raised apples and clenched fists over their heads, catching the eyes of consumers.

"The minimum wage is not a livable wage if you have poor or no housing, poor or no health care, poor or no education, no protection from pesticides," Boonstra said.

Moreover, Gamboa said, the seasonal nature of the work means apple pickers bring in an average of $3,950 a year, according to the state Office of Employment Security.

"The work is very arduous. Even when we're paid on an hourly basis, the foremen keep pushing us to work harder and harder," said Lorenzo Jimenez, one of about 150 workers striking against Flat Top Orchards over the wage structure issue. He described standing on a 12-foot ladder with a bag strapped over his shoulders that approaches 35 pounds when it's full.

The workweek stretches to six days, or even seven at the height of the harvest. "By the end of the day, we feel . . . our back is about to break in two," Jimenez said.

Another striking worker, Benjamin Cerda, said that when he is paid at the piece rate, he normally earns about $12 an hour--not the $6.50 he's now being paid.

Workers said Flat Top Orchards was targeted because it moved to a minimum-wage pay scale at four of its five operations in the Yakima Valley.

Settlements have been reached with nine other small growers in the area, with some pay rates rising to $7 or $8 or even $10 an hour for senior employees.

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