Workers sue Washington mushroom farm, allege wrongful firings, labor violations


Farmworkers were fired from the Sunnyside-based mushroom producer Windmill Farms for trying to unionize, according to a civil lawsuit filed Tuesday in Yakima County Superior Court.

The lawsuit, filed by six employees and labor union United Farm Workers of America, alleges Windmill violated labor and employment laws by interfering with their ability to organize through surveilling union supporters, starting an attendance policy that punished them for organizing and using production quotas to retaliate against them.

The plaintiffs are demanding economic and statutory damages and that the court order Windmill to stop retaliating against employees for exercising their rights to organize.

Windmill Farms did not immediately respond to a request for comment. The company's private equity firm, Instar Asset Management, is also named in the lawsuit.

Farmworkers have been pushing for Windmill to recognize their union since last year. The company has stated that a union isn't necessary.

"We're hoping that this sends a clear message to the company. ... You need to sit down with workers as equals and negotiate with them and come to a collective bargaining agreement," UFW spokesperson Antonio De Loera-Brust said. "The workers have put up with a lot to get this far, and they're not stopping."

Washington has regulations protecting farmworkers from retaliation for unionizing, but those seeking to unionize remain reliant on their employer's willingness to recognize and bargain with union committees, as is the case in the vast majority of states nationwide.

Farmworkers are explicitly excluded from the National Labor Relations Act, and Washington does not have a provision in its state constitution requiring employers to recognize farmworkers unions.

"We work in places where our rights are not respected," plaintiff Roman Castillo Avila said in a news release. "We go to HR, but instead of helping, they help the employer, and we continue to be exploited. We need a union in our workplace to help stop that abuse."

Ostrom Mushroom Farms, a major Pacific Northwest producer, was sold to Canadian-owned Windmill Farms after the Washington Attorney General's Office sued the Yakima County-based company for gender discrimination and other discriminatory practices.

The lawsuit filed Tuesday alleges that in September of last year union supporters delivered a petition to the Ostrom office to discuss issues about working conditions, and the company then called police to escort employees off the property and sent workers a letter saying they would receive disciplinary action for not working their full hours.

The employees also allege that the company implemented a strict attendance policy the day before union supporters held a public action in Seattle, which "resulted in many workers fearing they could be terminated for attending the public action."

"The new attendance policy made it nearly impossible for workers to take time off for health issues or to participate in union activity as the company frequently disallowed workers to take days off when union events were scheduled," the lawsuit said.

Before Windmill took over, Ostrom paid $3.4 million to resolve the attorney general's lawsuit, money the office said it used to pay more than 170 workers who were eligible for damages. State investigators say Ostrom systematically fired women, replacing them with men, and hired foreign workers over domestic workers.

A court order resolving the attorney general's lawsuit prohibits Windmill Farms from discriminating or retaliating against employees, firing or refusing to hire them on the basis of a protected class, or misrepresenting the terms and conditions of employment to any workers. It also prohibited the company from setting more stringent requirements for domestic employees versus workers hired under the H-2A visa system, which grants workers fewer labor rights.

All year, workers have been worried about what the sale would mean for their struggle to unionize. Those concerns appeared to materialize, according to the lawsuit.

The lawsuit alleges that on the day of the sale, workers were called to a midday meeting where management told them all employees had been terminated. Employees were then handed job offers — some of which changed their roles or cut their pay — and were told they must sign the job offer and an arbitration agreement immediately to continue their employment, according to the lawsuit.

Plaintiffs allege that after the sale, Windmill disparately disciplined and fired workers who engaged in concerted activity for using sick days and separated union supporters from working together.

Three of the plaintiffs have been terminated from the company, allegedly for failing to meet productivity standards.

One plaintiff, Jose Martinez-Cuevas, worked at Ostrom as a janitor and was offered a new job as a mushroom picker. Two months later, Martinez-Cuevas was fired, purportedly for not meeting production requirements, less than two days after participating in a pro-union demonstration, according to the lawsuit.

"It's very clear that he was arbitrarily singled out ... it was clearly retaliatory in terms of the timing and the cause, which was not consistently enforced toward other workers," De Loera-Brust said.

Three of the plaintiffs remained employed by the company at the time the lawsuit was filed. The lawsuit alleges Windmill targeted them for surveillance and "intends to terminate" their employment.