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Thomas Kaplan Supports Apple-packing Warehouse Workers and Immigrant Communities

Thomas Kaplan, Caldwell Fellow, supports independent union Familias Unidas por la Justicia
Thomas is seated opposite Ramon Torres, President of FUJ, as the elected striker committee at Manson Fruit dictates the terms they would like included in their back-to-work agreement.

November 30, 2020

Thomas Kaplan, 2020 Caldwell Fellow

Thomas Kaplan, 2020 Caldwell Fellow

I had the rare opportunity to witness and engage a paradigm shift in the labor relations of apple-packing warehouse workers in Washington’s Yakima Valley earlier this year. There, I supported the women-led strikes at Hansen, Matson, Monson, Jack Frost, Columbia Reach, and Allan Bros. fruit-packing plants, which occurred between May and June of 2020, and which later became a struggle for an independent union: Trabajadores Unidos por la Justicia. It has been said that “there are decades where nothing happens; and there are weeks where decades happen.” The Jennifer Caldwell Fellowship allowed me to throw myself into the latter kind of historical moment. My experience in supporting the strikes and union-organizing drive over seven non-consecutive weeks in Yakima, as well as many additional hours of legal and administrative support which I provided while quarantined in my home, was invaluable.

When I first joined the strikers in early May, my role was to keep track of developments at each of the six active strikes and report back to the organization and its attorneys. This meant being in constant communication with workers about what their grievances and demands were and having frequent discussions with them about the legal and strategic issues that were likely to be obstacles to their broader mission. As workers began to feel that they were ready to negotiate a back-to-work agreement with their respective companies, I helped them draft such agreements in communication with attorneys serving them pro-bono. It was of fundamental importance to the workers and they receive written agreement to their demands. To the workers, written agreements not only symbolized their unity, but also indicated tacit recognition of their right to join together in collective action. This, they felt, was a pre-requisite to rebuilding trust with their employers and forming a coalition with one-another that would be capable of seeking further changes after the group decided to return to the shopfloor. Supporting the hundreds of strikers, being a point-person for their lawyers, and helping provide logistical and strategic assistance to the organizing effort was more than a full-time job for the first three weeks that I was present in Yakima.

FUJ union's slogan

Some of the workers rallied under the slogan, “Unidos Negociamos, Divididos Rogamos” (United We Negotiate, Divided We Beg).

Once the strikes concluded, the workers and FUJ turned to the next important task: organizing a union drive to establish the first independent food-chain workers’ union of Yakima in generations. To that end, I helped workers create a database of their groups’ memberships. This would be important for eventually filing for an official union election with the National Labor Relations Board. I was present and helped at various leadership-development trainings and showed the workers how to “power map” their support to measure the likelihood that they could win an election. I spent two weeks in Yakima where I would join workers in the early morning to hand out flyers to the entering morning shift at one of the warehouses in the hopes of persuading some to sign up with the union for membership.

The respect that the workers are winning, day by day, serves a greater purpose. Organizing a strike is itself a victory for self-determination in the face of unrelenting exploitation. Establishing a union, on the other hand, is the ultimate expression of workers’ inherent value and agency—it formalizes workers’ power to leverage their labor for a share in their economic production. Yet, organizing a union is only the beginning. What comes next, I hope, is for the workers to decide.

Over the course of my Jennifer Caldwell Fellowship, I also supported the research being carried out by the Center for Human Rights (CHR) in several ways.  For example, I reviewed the Washington Attorney General’s model policies and recommendations for how local law enforcement agencies (LEAs) and courts can come into compliance with the Keep Washington Working Act (KWW) and the Courts Open to All Act (COTA). To follow up on that, I also worked with the CHR research team to develop a questionnaire which we intend to administer to LEAs and courts to locate and shine a light on state agencies failing to comply with the new mandates. Additionally, I have conducted legal research in coordination with the Center’s partner organizations, created online content for the Center’s website, and I am currently engaged in data-analysis related to the vast public information gathering led by the Center’s immigration-focused “Observatorio.” I believe that this work, and the Center’s projects that it feeds into, promotes government accountability and the well-being of immigrant communities across Washington.