On September 21, 1986, farm workers in Central Washington, most of Latino heritage, found the United Farm Workers of Washington State. The purpose is to bring a collective voice to farm workers attempting to combat workplace abuses such as extremely low wages. The United Farm Workers of Washington State begins independently of the AFL-CIO. It is christened by a march led by Cesar Chavez (1927-1993) in the Yakima Valley. In 1995, a year after affiliating with the AFL-CIO as the regional branch of the United Farmworkers Union of America, the union will secure its first contract for workers. This contract will end a strike by laborers against the Chateau Ste. Michelle winery.
Farm Workers OrganizeThe establishment of the United Farm Workers Cooperative (UFW Co-op) in Toppenish, Washington, in 1967, was the first major attempt to organize farm laborers in Eastern Washington. The co-op functioned primarily as a store and community center, but it helped to spawn further efforts to organize farm workers throughout the late 1960s and 1970s.
Wildcat strikes (that is, strikes without union support) in the hopfields of the Yakima Valley in 1970, produced the first strike organizing committee, comprising activists Roberto and Carlos Trevino, and University of Washington law student Guadalupe Gamboa. As Guadalupe Gamboa recalls:
“The first organizing efforts actually took place in the valley, [led by] a couple [of] students, Roberto Trevino and his brother, Carlos Trevino ... . The Trevinos had gone down [to the Yakima Valley ]. They were all students at that time at the University of Washington and had been involved in the grape boycott and had heard all about Cesar Chavez. So when they went down, they were drinking and talking to some of their buddies, who were complaining that they were being paid very bad at this hop farm -- it was in the fall -- and that they were all planning to quit, so they said, "Well, instead of quitting, why don’t you organize strike like they did in California? Ask for better wages." In fact, that’s what they did” (Gamboa).
The group first organized striking workers at Chief Hop ranches in the lower Yakima Valley. The first strike originated in Granger, Washington, and soon reached the small town of Mabton. As Gamboa further notes, “workers from other neighboring farms also came and asked for help, so then we sent organizers there and eventually the hop strike spread to about fourteen or fifteen different ranches. We caught the growers by surprise and they were in the middle of harvest, which has to be done right on time; otherwise the hops lose their value” (Gamboa).
Though farm workers overwhelmingly supported unionization (the vote amongst strikers was 105 in favor, 3 against, unionization), the growers only engaged the group in surface bargaining and the following season blackballed laborers, refusing to hire many of those who were prominently engaged in union activity. Despite this setback, the group was successful in raising the wages paid to workers.
Though the strikes and strike committee did not have the strength to organize all the workers at this time, the activity nonetheless catalyzed for future organizational efforts, especially leading into the 1980s.
UFW of Washington State
This was the situation and atmosphere of unrest that led to the organization of the United Farm Workers. According to the United Farmworkers of Washington State History Project (hosted by the University of Washington's Harry Bridges Center for Labor Studies):
"[t]hrough the mid '80s, the Apple Commission had lured hundreds of workers to Washington State from the Southern US with the promise of jobs, yet the conditions for the existing workers were already sub-standard and unemployment already high. Fed up with low wages and high unemployment, workers picketed outside of and occupied the Office of Employment and Security in Yakima to demand a meeting with Governor Booth Gardner in 1987" (UFW in WA State History Project).
Despite this first push, there was no immediate agreement made. It would be in 1995, when the first contract would be secured by the UFW, which had affiliated with the AFL-CIO the year before. Through the efforts of longtime activist Tomas Villanueva since the 1960s, and recently with Rosalinda Guillen in the 1990s, the union was able to give voice to the marginalized farmworker population, many of whom are of Mexican and Latin American descent.
To this day the organization continues to be one of the strongest advocates for civil and labor rights in the state of Washington. Based in Sunnyside, the union continues its work of organizing farm workers.