Skagit Valley tulip, daffodil farmworkers on strike over working conditions and wages

MOUNT VERNON – Rosa Martínez carried a sign on her head Wednesday that read “huelga” – Spanish for “strike” – with hands covered in clusters of sores, the caustic liquid she says can be used to treat daffodils bites. Cause it was released.

Martinez said he and other field workers are left to buy their own medical-grade disposable gloves, which can cost as much as $30 per box, and only the size of a ketchup packet to treat wounds upon request. A small container of ointment is provided.

That and several other complaints prompted Martinez and more than 70 other farmworkers employed at Mount Vernon by the Washington Bulb Company to lay off their jobs Wednesday morning. With the help of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an independent union of indigenous families, workers are also demanding increased wages, guaranteed eight-hour workdays, better sick leave and safer use of pesticides.

Workers say they want the performance bonus to be calculated by the number of flower clusters chosen regardless of the quality of the whole bunch; A bonus of $7.50 for each employee in the team that meets the set goal; and reinstatement of all striking employees.

They also want sick leave to begin and be accessible at the start of seasonal employment and want their hourly rate to cover the time they take to walk from their cars to the fields. They also want flowers to be rubber-banded only during working hours, as well as access to four clean portable toilets.

The Washington Bulb Company, which cultivates approximately 2,000 acres of land, is owned by Roosengrde Flowers and Bulbs, the largest tulip-bulb producer in the country and one of the largest employers in the Skagit Valley.

Wednesday’s walkout marks what union leaders believe is the first strike at the Skagit Valley Tulip Field and comes just before the start of the month-long Skagit Valley Tulip Festival on April 1. The festival attracts thousands of people to view the giant tulip and daffodil fields, and spend money on food and accommodation in the nearby towns of La Conner and Mount Vernon.

Roozengarde owner Brent Roosen said in a statement that the company has a “long history of positive working relationships” with workers and called the strike “upsetting” for the company and its other employees. He said some of the workers’ complaints stemmed from an error made in calculating the daily performance bonus for two employees, in which one was over-compensated and the other under-compensated, but it was quickly corrected.

Rouzen said the company provides a daily official tally of selected bunches to employees, but doesn’t provide an individual count because the bonuses are based on crew picks.

“We think we are being as transparent as possible,” he said.

Daffodil sap can cause sores, rashes, or irritation. The company makes this clear and that’s why the gloves and hydrocortisone cream are provided, Roozen wrote in an email.

But striking workers complained that gloves and cream were not available.

Polly Welch, a company official, said Washington would investigate the bulb complaints, but “not a single complaint” has been formally reported to her.

The workers who went on strike initially gathered to stage a sit-in at the company’s property, but were asked to leave, so they lined Best Road just outside the company’s property. Union President Ramon Torres said ,If possible!” (“Yes, we can!”) via a megaphone.

The economy of Skagit Valley, like the rest of Washington’s agricultural areas, relies heavily on immigrant workers, often forcing workers to work hard in harsh weather conditions amid unsafe practices and exposure to pesticides.

Workers in the tulip and daffodil fields, which have become a symbol of Skagit Valley agriculture, walk through deep soil, often getting stuck and needing two or three other workers to help them out, farmworker Octavia Santiago Martinez said in Spanish.

He said the workers spend hours bending over, causing them back pain and muscle aches. Many women go home after a long day’s work to cook food and take care of their families.

His mother, Concepcion, stood beside him at the picket line on Wednesday morning with her long sleeves covering the partially healed wounds. Santiago Martínez said his mother, who speaks Mixteco – an indigenous language primarily spoken in Mexico’s Oaxacan region – received only three packs of ointment during the entire season.

Herminio Juárez has worked in agriculture for more than 20 years.

Through an interpreter at Mixteco, he said the poor working conditions experienced by farm workers can be present everywhere, whether it is California or Washington. Juarez was working seven days a week, as is common, and was recently fired for taking Sunday off, he said.

Adding to the list of complaints, he said supervisors keep track of bathroom breaks and that employees spend most of their break time swaying back and forth on their cars. He said that supervisors give only verbal warnings but keep track of complaints against employees which may hinder job prospects for the next session.

Juarez said intimidation from superiors plays a major role in employees’ decisions to keep quiet and work through the abuses.

Edgar Franks, the political director of Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said he is expected to work with wounds on his hands and buy his own protective gear.

Union committee member Alfredo Juárez said workers are paid about $14 an hour, but to make a living wage, many work extra, unpaid time off during breaks or at home to earn production bonuses.

“They should be able to enjoy their leisure breaks or time at home,” he said.

Alfredo Juarez said that often, a crew of 80 people would have to share a small barrel of water.

Alfredo Juarez said, “Sometimes we just look at the company’s color like the Tulip Festival because we don’t take the time to ask workers what conditions they actually work in.”

Fear of reprisal has silenced activists, Franks said. Many workers do not speak English or Spanish, which makes it difficult for them to understand their rights.

“These working conditions are nothing new,” said Franks, who grew up in Skagit Valley.

Many people look at fields of tulips and think about the “beauty of the landscape,” but don’t realize what it takes to produce and harvest what’s out there, Franks said.

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