Governor Meets With Stranded Migrant Workers, Turns Down Direct State Aid
YAKIMA, Wash. (AP) _ Gov. Booth Gardner on Wednesday toured a riverside camp where migrant workers have been stranded without work in the nation’s largest apple harvest, but he promised no direct state aid to pickers.
Gardner, after meeting with representatives of the pickers, growers and social workers, also said there was no state money available to help the migrants return home.
During a stop at the Salvation Army in Yakima, a small group of migrant workers chanted, ″money, money,″ and asked him to speak. He said only that the state was doing everything possible to find them jobs.
At a news conference, he said state officials were still looking for ways to secure more relief funds.
″There is no (state) money available for that purpose,″ Gardner said. ″I’m not saying it can’t be done.″
Harvest of a record crop of Red Delicious apples has been delayed in much parts of the state by hot weather, stranding many pickers without jobs and dwindling funds.
Leaders of the United Farm Workers of Washington State have requested state assistance to help what they estimate are 20,000 unemployed migrants return home. There is no official estimate of how many unemployed farm workers are in the state.
After meeting with union leaders, Gardner announced plans to improve coordination of existing relief services, public and private, and to study ways to prevent similar occurances in the future.
Gardner also toured a litter-strewn camp along the Yakima River where five migrants from California have been living while they await work. He spoke briefly with the migrants and then left for the airport.
Tomas Villanueva, president of the 1,200-member farm workers union, said he was disappointed that the governor did not offer immediate aid, including calling out the National Guard and opening armories to house the migrants.
″When Mount St. Helens exploded, aid was quick to arrive,″ Villanueva said. ″We are seated on a Mount St. Helens. Why wait for it to explode?″
In Yakima County, the nation’s top apple producer, the state Job Service office had only 40 openings for pickers and turned away 125 people Wednesday, said administrator Mark Mochel. Workers have also been turned away in Moses Lake, Wenatchee, the Tri-Cities and other apple growing areas this week.
The 1,200-member union blames state agencies and the Washington State Apple Commission for creating a worker surplus this year.
Villanueva contends that radio advertisements by the commission broadcast in California lured thousands more workers than there were available jobs so the growers could keep wages low.
″Last year there were 38,000 workers employed without any need for advertisement or recruitment,″ he said. ″There was no way they could say there was going to be a labor shortage.″
Charles St. John, a spokesman for the grower-supported Apple Commission, denied the charge and said there may not be a surplus of workers once all the growers start picking, which should occur this week.
Growers blame the weather for much of the problem.
The harvest of Red Delicious apples is about three weeks behind schedule, because unseasonably hot temperatures delayed final ripening. In addition, the sun damaged many apples with a condition called sunburn, which makes them a brownish color and mushy. Such apples cannot be sold in supermarkets, and sometimes are not worth picking.
Projections for Washington’s apple crop, by far the largest in the nation, had called for a record 83.3 million boxes. State officials had estimated that up to 45,000 pickers would be needed.
The commission, fearing a repeat of the worker shortage that hampered the summer’s cherry harvest, aggressively pursued migrant workers, promising ″good money″ in the since-canceled radio ads.
But with the harvest up to one-third completed in central Washington, many unemployed workers are being fed and housed by relief agencies. Federal emergency funds and private donations have poured into central Washington relief agencies.
Several migrants interviewed by The Associated Press Tuesday said getting home had become a major concern.
″Maybe the governor will bring some (gas) money,″ said Raymond Perez, who came up from California in mid-September and has not found work.