Mushroom workers sue Windmill Farms over labor rights violations

YAKIMA, Wash. (Nov. 29, 2023) — The United Farm Workers (UFW) and several current and former workers filed a lawsuit Tuesday against the Sunnyside, Washington-based and Canadian-owned mushroom producer Windmill Farms (formerly operated as Ostrom Mushroom Farm), for violating workers’ labor rights in a retaliatory anti-union campaign of illegal firings, intimidation, and harassment.

Represented by nonprofit Columbia Legal Services (CLS) and Martinez Aguilasocho Law, Inc., workers say Windmill Farms engaged in interference, discrimination, and retaliation against those who raised concerns with management or showed support for unionization.

UFW President Teresa Romero leads an April 2023 march of Windmill workers in Sunnyside.

“For workers, this is just the next step in a long campaign,” said UFW President Teresa Romero. “The workers who plant, harvest, and pack the mushrooms at Windmill Farms want the same thing we all want: to work in safety and dignity while providing for their families. Over and over again these workers have organized and fought for a union. And over and over again, they have been ignored, retaliated against, or fired for doing so. Today, this lawsuit makes clear that workers will not stand for this anymore. To Windmill we say: Ya basta – it is past time to recognize their workers desire to join the union.”

Workers at the mushroom plant have been fighting for a union since the Summer 2022 in the wake of widespread terminations, dangerous working conditions, gender discrimination, and other mistreatment. Last year, Washington State Attorney General Bob Ferguson sued then-owners Ostrom Mushroom Farm for discrimination based on sex and immigration status after 85% of female workers and 79% of domestic workers were laid off and replaced by male workers with temporary H-2A work visas. It was amidst that lawsuit — settled in May 2023 for $3.4 million (see photo below) —  that Ostrom Mushroom Farm sold itself to the Canada-based Windmill Farms.

“They treat me badly, shouting a lot, a lot of pressure, a lot of harassment, they spy on you to see how you are working, a lot of shouting all day,” said plaintiff Maria Cesilia Lua Guizar. “It’s awful working like this. If we entered into a union, it would be a very good change for all the workers in terms of treatment and benefits would be much better.”

Since taking over in February 2023, Windmill has employed many of the same managers who worked for Ostrom. They continue to treat workers poorly, interfere with organizing activities, and refuse to recognize the union.

Plaintiff Roman Castillo Avila described his experience: “We work in places where our rights are not respected. 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.”

In one instance, workers were called to a mid-day meeting in February 2023 and told the company (Ostrom) had been sold (to Windmill) and that all employees had been terminated. At the same time, each employee was handed an envelope with a job offer from Windmill and told they must sign it immediately to continue their employment. The new offers were contingent upon the workers signing a mandatory arbitration agreement and accepting whatever position was offered, regardless of decreases in pay or changes to roles for which they had no training or experience. Plaintiff Jose Martinez-Cuevas, a prominent union supporter who had been employed at Ostrom as a janitor, was offered rehire as a mushroom picker. Two months later, Martinez-Cuevas was fired, purportedly for not meeting production requirements. Martinez-Cuevas’ firing took place less than 2 days after he participated in a pro-union demonstration.

The three plaintiffs who have not yet been terminated have faced harassment, interference, and retaliatory behavior. They have been denied sick time and PTO, moved to different work crews so they cannot be near other union supporters, and reprimanded for things outside their control, such as using the wrong labels (that were provided to them) on packing.

“The workers bringing this case are incredibly brave. They have faced so much resistance and loss already and continue to stand up for what they know is right so that all workers will be protected,” said Blanca Rodriguez, Director of Advocacy for Immigrant Equity at CLS, and one of the lawyers for the plaintiffs.

The lawsuit contends that Windmill violated multiple labor and employment laws, including the Little Norris-LaGuardia Act, which states that all workers “shall be free from interference, restraint, or coercion … in self-organization or in other concerted activities for the purpose of collective bargaining or other mutual aid or protections,” and seeks damages for the plaintiffs and immediate and permanent relief from retaliation by the company or any of its officers. The lawsuit also alleges violations of the Farm Labor Contractor’s Act—a state law that requires those acting as farm labor contractors to disclose certain information to workers—against Windmill Farms and Instar Asset Management, Inc., the Canadian private equity firm which owns the land operated by Windmill.

Exit mobile version