Farm workers strike one week before Skagit Valley Tulip Festival

Mar 23, 2022, 3:39 PM | Updated: Mar 24, 2022, 3:03 pm
Tulip strike...
Farm workers at Washington Bulb Company on strike. (Nicole Jennings, KIRO Newsradio)
(Nicole Jennings, KIRO Newsradio)

One week before the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival is due to kick off, more than 70 farmworkers are striking against a major player in the Tulip Festival, the Washington Bulb Company.

The Skagit Valley Tulip Festival brings about a million tourists each year to see the colorful fields between Mount Vernon, La Conner, and Burlington. Washington Bulb is the nation’s largest tulip bulb company, and in addition to selling bulbs and cut flowers, it runs Roozengaarde, one of the valley’s two tulip display gardens.

Edgar Franks, political director for the farm workers’ union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia, said the workers are asking for higher pay and safer, healthier working conditions. That would entail more bathrooms and improved access to drinking water while out in the fields, as well as protective equipment when working with pesticides.

“A lot of the chemicals that are applied on to the tulips and the daffodils, when you’re cutting tulips and the daffodils, sometimes they leak a little liquid. That liquid, if it gets on your skin, can become corrosive,” Franks said. “Some people have developed allergic reactions to it, and it has caused sores and lesions on their arms and their hands. Sometimes it gets sprayed on their face when they’re cutting the flowers.”

Local groups demand stronger COVID precautions for agricultural workers

Franks says the strike was unplanned, and they hope to have it resolved by the time the festival begins. He said discussions have begun between workers and Washington Bulb.

“Workers want to see a very successful Tulip Festival,” Franks said. “They recognize that it’s a very important thing here for our community, and if it’s good for the community, then the workers also should be part of that discussion and very visible and appreciated.”

In the meantime, Franks said two-thirds of the crews cutting tulips for bouquets are out on strike.

“We don’t want to be on strike at all — workers want to go back to work,” Franks said. “But they want to go back to work with good conditions and guarantees that they’re not going to be punished for taking part in a strike. They also want protections for their health and safety, better wages, and better treatment.”

But one farming group is questioning the union’s claims.

“The group that is raising these concerns has a terrible track record of making false accusations, time and again — even the practice of having people who are not farm workers posing as farm workers [at protests],” said Dillon Honcoop, communications director for Save Family Farming.

Franks said that while the workers have had complaints for years, the strike itself came about suddenly. However, Honcoop wonders about the timing.

“Any worker in any job should be allowed to work for higher pay and request that. That’s a negotiation that can happen … but why that doesn’t happen here, why this goes straight to a protest, begs the question, where were the conversations leading up to this?” Honcoop asked, adding, “I would really question whether this was truly spontaneous, whether this was truly an organic movement, or if it was something that was coordinated and planned to try to leverage the popularity of the Tulip Festival?”

Washington Bulb said in a statement that it believed “only a small number of employees” were taking part in the strike and protests.

“The primary issue stems from an inadvertent error made by our employees when calculating the daily performance bonus for two groups of field teams,” the statement read. “One group was mistakenly overcompensated while one was group mistakenly undercompensated. We have communicated with our employees to resolve this concern and made the decision to compensate all groups at the higher bonus level.”

Cindy Verge with the Skagit Valley Tulip Festival said in a statement that while the festival is not part of employee/employer negotiations at individual companies, it values “the many contributions” of the tulip companies and their workers.

“We feel that the current labor dispute will be quickly resolved,” she said.

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Farm workers strike one week before Skagit Valley Tulip Festival