While the US media focuses its attention on “racial conflicts” in a not so innocent way, a series of day laborers’ strikes in Washington state this month has shown much more clearly the forms and alternatives of the emergence of workers as a class.
Washington apple workers (USA)
Last year 65,000 workers were employed in apple picking and packing in Washington State. Most are immigrants working with H-2A visas. In addition to having to deal with unsafe working conditions and already low wages, the pandemic has now led the Trump administration to lower their wages.
Workers, who arrive in batches that are distributed among the different companies, are housed in bunk beds, eat lunch in common dining rooms and move around in company transports. Conditions that make them very vulnerable to infection. This is why Yakima County has the highest infection rate on the entire west coast of the USA. The concentration of “essential industry” and precarization is a surefire formula for covid spread throughout the world. In many of the plants, employees work almost without protection or physical distance. The safety measures at “Hansen Fruit”, for example, were only “maintained” while management was watching and were “neglected” by supervisors once they were no longer “supervised”. The spread of infection is extremely high.
According to one worker at the plant, “Allen Brothers Fruit” refused to stop production and disinfect the plant when workers became infected with COVID-19. The company also failed to inform the workers of the cases, which were not few, but had to be discovered through conversations among them.
People took vacation days or sick leave or whatever they could to stay home. The company said that if we worked for five weeks we could stay home, but they wouldn’t pay us. We only get minimum wage, so how were we going to do that? And we have no guarantee that we’ll get our jobs back if we don’t go to work now.
At the end of April, the workers sent an email to the company’s management demanding better conditions, salary and the right to stop working. The company’s response to the email? They offered to buy them lunch.
Why are these strikes “communist”?
The strike demands, shared by workers in the various companies, included safer working conditions and an additional $2 per hour hazard pay, payment of sick leave, and that those workers who decide to stop will not suffer reprisals for the strike.
Two days after the strike began, workers at Columbia Reach Pack, Hansen Fruit & Cold Storage Co. joined the wave of strikes under the same demands. Matson workers also demanded more and better protection panels on the production line.
“They have installed plastic but not of professional quality,” Granillo said. “It’s like the wrapping used in the kitchen to cover the fruit. And the production line works so fast that we are forced to pile up, so what they have installed is useless as long as they endanger people themselves.
What do these demands mean? Workers fight for the primacy of their needs: not to get sick, not to infect others, that getting sick does not mean endangering their own and their families’ livelihoods, getting paid enough to meet their vital needs… That is to say, they affirm that human needs are above capital gains. They affirm an alternative guiding principle for society: satisfying human needs, not capital’s demand for profits, must be the goal of the social organization of production… and that is what communism means.
The struggle also immediately broke down the artificial divisions in which the system divides the workers in order to dilute the universal character of its objectives: they did not fight separately for men or women, for migrants or nationals, for “Latinos”, “Anglos”, or “Blacks”. Their demands are ‘for all’, they are universal. What’s more, they overcame from the very beginning a division that is usually more difficult to break, the division into companies, as the strike spread to all the companies in the region. If the strike had been concentrated in a single company, capital would have had no problem closing it down if the demands were incompatible with profits maximization and just reinvested the money on the rest of the companies.
One of the most striking aspects of this struggle is that, in addition to having spread beyond the division into single companies, these are not “union-led” strikes. They were born and organized under the direct leadership of the workers themselves.
However, shortly after the start of the “Allen Brothers Fruit” strike, trade unions attempted to control and suppress the strike’s management despite having no members on the payroll. “Families United for Justice (FUJ), a union affiliated to the AFL-CIO, sent its organizers to intervene in the strike , presenting itself as willing to “help” the workers’ efforts.
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The unions have not been the only “friends” of the workers. Throughout the strike, the company has threatened and questioned the strikers in an attempt to divide them. “Allan Brothers” began paying an extra $1 hazard pay to those who broke the strike or did not join it. At one point they even used drones to take pictures of the strikers.
They were looking for a “viable way” to end the strike, i.e. not to lose benefits. The way was to “give priority” to implementing safety procedures over raising wages. According to the president of the tree-fruit company, “pay and safety are important issues, but they should not get mixed up” because “no one is safer if they are paid more. The move was to divide the demands between “righteous” (safety) and the “selfish” (pay) ones. An old argument that touches the communist heart of every struggle that goes on somewhere.
Logically, the workers did not think they had to “choose” between a higher salary and increased security measures. Increased pay is not only a “safety net” for those at constant risk of infection, because in a country without universal health care hospital bills are a direct burden on the sick worker, but increased pay also protects the welfare of the whole family.
This agreement is the most important thing for us, the company is recognizing the committee to represent all our comrades, it allows us to continue negotiating within the company the demands for salary increase, improvement of working conditions, sanitation, protection and that our rights as company workers are respected. We are satisfied because with this legal document they accepted our conditions, and we are sure that we will achieve all our demands, we will return with strength to the negotiating table in July
On Friday, May 22, Monson Fruit accepted an agreement in which it did not grant the salary increases that the workers demanded but did implement safety measures in the face of the pandemic. On the same day, an agreement was also reached at Jack Frost Fruit. The strike continues at Matson Fruit and Columbia Reach. At Hansen Fruit, only one worker is “still on strike”.
Trade union’s “help”
How did the union “help” the workers? How did the “Families United for Justice” (FUJ) “help”? The FUJ is affiliated with the AFL-CIO, the central whose president is a member of Donald Trump’s “Council for the Re-opening of America,” which supports Joe Biden’s candidacy, works with businesses to get employees back to work as soon as possible during the “reopening” period, and supports the Mexican unions that “led workers into an abyss. What did “C2C“, the eco-feminist activist group, which also intervened with the strikers, offer? The “support” of César Chávez and the Democratic Party… in other words, trade union “support” in exchange for political “support” that could get nowhere because it only meant an even greater subordination of the struggle.
The strike had become a struggle of the entire region’s day laborers. Their logic was to go further, to the packing houses and to all the workers in the area. Unions and leftists managed to get the strike divided again by companies. Each group of workers would have its own committee… and nothing else. Leaving each committee alone in front of their bosses.
As the influence of the unions grew, the recognition of each committee by the company became the main goal. Unions turned the struggle into a tool to establish their own structure. As if the workers, migrant laborers who come and go every season, “belonged” to the companies and would benefit somewhat from it. The agreements do not even include the required wage increases, but follow the desire of the companies to focus on “security measures”. As a way of avoiding wage concessions “Jack Frost” promised one-time bonuses of $200 to workers who kept their contract for three more months and adhered to the recommendations for social distancing and sanitation. As one worker stated:
The agreement is no big deal. There are points about protective equipment and safety in the workplace, but that has been promised by the company before. Economically, it hardly helps. We get an extra $20 a week. That’s a joke to us. We go into negotiations demanding $100 a week plus a $2 per hour raise. The economic conditions are getting tougher every day. The $13.50 minimum is no longer enough.
The process of “negotiation”, increasingly diverted from the objectives of the workers, eroded the struggle. More than half of the strikers ended up going back to work before the “agreements” were reached. Once divided and with hope placed in the committees under trade union tutelage, they could no longer extend the strike and “break the compartmentalization in companies”. They could not centralize the struggle, they were alone in front of their bosses… and losing strength every day.
Leftists repeat day in and day out that it is only the “trade unions” that can obtain “victories” for the workers, that the working class would be defenseless against the attacks of the capitalists without them. That the workers must have “representatives” and cannot fight for themselves, and that without the “guidance” of the unions and the legitimacy of unionization, the struggles will not advance. But reality shows us quite the opposite, in each case and all over the world; in struggles for improvements in working conditions and in struggles against company shutdowns.
- “France: railway workers’ overtakes trade union control“