Last summer, two Washington farms faced labor unrest among their H-2A ranks.
At one, in Central Washington’s Grant County, the orchard owner made some changes while the employees went back to work within a few days. At the other, in Whatcom County in the northwest part of the state, the owners fired the employees, prompting a federal class action lawsuit.
So far, strikes by H-2A workers have been rare, and there is no comfortable way out if strikes occur. “It’s not going to be fun,” said Rick Anderson, the former special projects director for walfa, at the agricultural human resource association’s annual meeting in January in Wenatchee, Washington.
However, Anderson, lawyers and other employment experts shared some tips and ideas from those two cases during the conference. Here are a few dos and don’ts if you are ever faced with a strike or labor protest.
—Don’t panic. “Easier said than done,” admitted Anderson. But that was his first suggestion. Set yourself up to act upon reason, not emotion. Remember, Anderson warned, cellphone video cameras are everywhere.
—Inform senior employment employees and supervisors and call an attorney right away, Anderson said. Consider forming an emergency response team in advance, just in case.
—Notify law enforcement so they may make sure streets and sidewalks are safe and to prevent trespassing, he said. Be prepared to escort visitors and employees on and off the property. You may want to have first aid ready, too.
—Authorize several people to do the talking, he suggested. Some will speak to the striking workers, some will talk to the nonstrikers, some to the media, some to managers, suppliers, customers, etc. They should tell the truth and stick to the facts, sharing what they know at the time and not speculating on what they don’t.
—Be prepared for reporters, he warned. Give them space and truthfully answer as many of their questions as you can.
—Staff the phones. Expect a deluge of phone calls in the office.
—Secure your facilities, equipment, computers and produce against vandalism and sabotage.
—Expect subversion and some aggression, Anderson warned. Don’t take the bait. “Remain in control of your emotions.”
—Truly hear and consider the workers’ requests, believing most of them have come to your farm to work hard and make an honest buck.
“Maybe I’m naïve, but I believe workers are here to work in good faith,” said John Dudrey, an Oregon attorney. He favored the response of the grower in the Grant County case; Keith Larson of Larson Fruit, who owned the orchard, declined to comment for Good Fruit Grower but told the Seattle Times last year, “these guys brought some things to our attention that made us realize, ‘Wow, we could do better.’”
—Be prepared to separate fact from fiction. For example, some union organizers promised H-2A workers green cards for themselves or their families in Whatcom County, said Roxana Macias of CSI Visa Processing, a Mexican company that recruits H-2A workers. That’s of course impossible, but “they don’t know any better,” said Macias, who flew from Mexico to try to help communicate in that case.
—Remember housing laws, even for workers who quit for good or are terminated. Give them a reasonable amount of time to vacate the housing facilities, Dudrey said. •
—by Ross Courtney