Recent events in Washington state expose how some growers seek to use claims of labor shortages to cut already meager pay and protections for farm workers already in this country. Heeding grower complaints of labor shortages, Democratic Gov. Christine Gregoire authorized about 100 prison inmates to pick apples for one of the state's largest growers, a major user of imported agricultural guest workers under the federal government's existing H-2A program. Each inmate is being paid $22 an hour.Meantime, on Wednesday, 60 workers at another large orchard went on strike. They were going to earn approximately $6 an hour and refused to enter the orchard. The farm labor contractor fired everyone and left them abandoned on the side of the road, an hour and a half from their homes. UFW organizer Jorge Valenzuela did a great job of working with the fired orchard workers and getting their story out to the press.
The UFW now has declarations from three domestic farm workers who applied for work at the orchard where prisoners are employed. The local workers were offered jobs there, but at the minimum wage. The domestic workers asked for $22 an hour, like the inmates are being paid, but were turned down. UFW National Vice President Erik Nicholson is working with the Washington State Labor Council to rally public support, calling attention to the fact that this so-called labor shortage is really about paying local farm workers low wages and making them endure high carrilla (speed ups).
Meanwhile, the only equitable and practical solution, the UFW's historic, bipartisan AgJobs bill letting the undocumented domestic farm workers currently here earn legal status by continuing to work in agriculture, remains blocked by the Republicans in Congress.
Arturo S. Rodriguez, President
United Farm Workers of America