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This winter, some farm workers are out in the cold

This winter, some Washington state farmworkers shared personal stories with representatives from the United Farmworkers union. Some have UFW contract protections, while non-union workers are literally left out in the cold.

Farm work is among the most dangerous industries in the nation. Performing the demanding physical tasks necessary in farm work becomes more dangerous when every part of you is frozen . There are few options for farm workers during winter — but the conditions are different for workers who have a UFW contract. Same cold, but there are way more precautions taken.

Chateau Ste Michelle Winery in Woodinville signed a binding contract with its workers after the United Farm Workers waged an 8-year fight including strikes, boycotts and grassroots mobilizing. Today, Ste. Michelle offers working conditions that prove the benefits of unions for both employer and worker.

For the last 13 years, Fortino Lopez has worked for the Chateau Ste Michelle winery under a UFW contract. “One of the benefits of my union contract is that when the temperatures are below 25 degrees, we get the day off and we have paid leave that we can use to cover the day. Also, when the roads are really dangerous, the company cancels work and we have a special bank of paid hours to cover the day.”

José Cruz, another Chateau Ste Michelle employee told a similar story. “For me, it’s very important to know that I work for a company that ensures my safety because I want to see my family every day after work. I am thankful that I belong to a union because I feel safer at work. At my job, we have safety meetings often to ensure that we know how to protect ourselves during the winter. My contract ensures that I have paid time off to cover the days when I have to take time off because of the bad weather. At companies where there is no union, they don’t have this benefit. When the weather is bad, they still have to go to work otherwise they would lose a whole day’s pay.”

Other farmworkers don’t have a choice—or a union

The situation is profoundly different for Rocio Olvera, a mother of three. She has worked in Washington state for 20 years. “In a single day I have had to work in all of the elements, in rain, sleet, and snow. I have gotten sick from working in really cold air. The freeways can be very dangerous when there is snow and ice, but I still have to find a way to work. We don’t have any paid time off to cover our day if we can’t work. When they close the schools because of snow I have to find someone to take care of my kids so I will be able to go to work.”

In many cases, people work with equipment not designed for cold and have to supply their own protective gear. Agustin Martinez has worked in the apples, pears, cherries, grapes and more for 30 years. “The cold weather causes me a lot of pain in my hands while I work. The company doesn’t give me equipment or protective wear for the cold or any training. If you have an accident because of the snow and you have to take a few days off work, they fire you. They don’t give anyone a chance to recuperate.”

More information about the United Farmworkers and issues facing those who harvest our food.

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