Hundreds of fruit packers in Washington and Oregon take union vote this week

More than 350 apple, pear and cherry packers at three facilities in Washington and Oregon will decide this week whether to unionize.

It’s among the first and largest unionization efforts among fruit packers in the region in years, according to Kristina Storm, director of United Food and Commercial Workers Local 3000, the union that employees will consider joining. It follows more than three years of organizing by mostly Latina women who have worked for decades for the Washington-based company Mount Adams Fruit. 

About 60 Mount Adams employees in Odell, Oregon; 300 employees in Bingen, Washington; and 12 employees in Dallesport, Washington, will vote Monday or Tuesday on whether to join the 50,000-member union. It represents workers in grocery, retail, healthcare, meatpacking and other industries across Washington, northeast Oregon and northern Idaho. The final votes will be tallied Tuesday evening, Storm said. To unionize, they’ll need just over 50% of employees to vote yes. 

Organizers at the Bingen facility say communication between people working on the packing lines and supervisors has deteriorated, that complaints of unsafe conditions, discrimination and inequitable treatment go unaddressed and that promised wage increases and requests to take time off have gone unmet. Company leaders say complaints are unfounded and the union effort is being led by a small group of employees who do not represent most workers. 

“The bosses care more about production than people,” said Mercedes Sanchez, 59, a union organizer who has worked at the Bingen facility for 36 years and said she has faced discrimination and threats from supervisors. 

Mount Adams CEO Doug Gibson refuted employee complaints.

“Since 1909 we’ve been taking care of our employees and putting our employees first,” he said. “No one is perfect, but we like to think we listen to our employees and continue to make this the best place to work.”

Finding help

The Bingen employees initially began their efforts to organize before Covid but had to pause efforts before restarting this spring, Storm said. 

Sanchez said she and a group of about 15 women began talking more about the working conditions and issues they were facing, including some senior employees being told they’d be replaced with new, cheaper workers. Many said they had been denied benefits and opportunities without explanation. Sanchez said that every December for more than 20 years, she has requested time off in December to go visit family in Mexico, and every year she has been denied while others have not. She’s not been given a reason, she said. 

The women turned to the Hood River-based social justice and environmental organization Comunidades for support. 

“We had to look for someone to help,” Sanchez said. “We had to do something.”

Leaders at Comunidades connected the group with UFCW 3000 and got the ball rolling. Sanchez said she and her coworkers called the other fruit packers at the Bingen facility one-by-one for weeks to talk with them about the union. 

Up until about a week ago, the vote to unionize was just going to be undertaken by the workers at the Bingen and Dallesport facilities. But, according to Storm, Mount Adams executives petitioned the National Labor Relations Board to allow the employees at the Odell facility on the Oregon side to join too, in an effort to tank the vote.  

“First of all, we welcome them,” Storm said of the Odell employees. “It wasn’t part of the plan, but a strategic move on the company’s part because they think those workers are going to vote ‘no.’”

Gibson claims that is not the case, but that the desire to unionize is not held among most Mount Adams employees. Gibson, who does not speak Spanish, said he walks fruit packing lines daily with supervisors who are able to help with translation among the largely Spanish-speaking workforce, and many do not share the concerns of the union organizers.

 “Our employees are treated fairly, all the time,” he said. “Overall, employees feel that the union is not needed and they are a little frustrated that this is happening.”

Storm said she and union organizers have heard otherwise from employees at all three facilities.

“What we’re hearing is that there is a lot of support from the Odell workers,” she said. “We believe that we are going to win, that the workers are going to win this, and that the majority are wanting a union in their workplace,” she said. 

Maricela Barajas, 62, has worked at the Bingen facility for 33 years. She’s among the women who have been organizing and talking with the Odell workers over the last week. She estimates at least one-quarter of them are interested in unionizing. 

“We’re fighting for representation,” she said. “We all want equality and respect. We want to work free of discrimination.”

Sanchez said she is taking a stand for her coworkers who have many more years ahead of them at the facility than she does. 

“Sometimes I’m worried about my house, providing for my kids, finding other work if I need to,” she said about the unionization effort. “But, it doesn’t really bother me. I’m doing this for the younger employees who already work long and hard hours. It’s important that the union wins for them,” she said.

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Alex Baumhardt has been a national radio producer focusing on education for American Public Media since 2017. She has reported from the Arctic to the Antarctic for national and international media, and from Minnesota and Oregon for The Washington Post. She previously worked in Iceland and Qatar and was a Fulbright scholar in Spain where she earned a master's degree in digital media. She's been a kayaking guide in Alaska, farmed on four continents and worked the night shift at several bakeries to support her reporting along the way.