Alleen Brown, THE GUARDIAN
As harvest season becomes riskier, workers are pressing for safer conditions including disaster insurance and hazard pay
But in recent months, a slick website has appeared under the name Sonoma Wine Industry for Safe Employees, or Sonoma Wise, featuring counterpoints to demands from North Bay Jobs with Justice.
When Margarita García, a 39-year-old mother from Oaxaca, Mexico, picks wine grapes during a wildfire, the sky is red and thick with smoke. Ash falls on her face, irritating her throat and eyes. The hot, fast work makes N-95 masks too suffocating, so she and her colleagues opt for bandanas.
In this part of northern California, the grape harvesting season has been transformed by fire. Sonoma county is known internationally for its pinot noir and – increasingly – for intense wildfire seasons made worse by the climate crisis. That has created new economic threats for both grape growers, who can lose an entire season’s harvest in a matter of hours, and for workers, who must operate in increasingly dangerous conditions without replacement income if work is called off.
Now, vineyard laborers like García are pressing officials to enact stronger worker protections during wildfire seasons. They want hazard pay, disaster insurance and safety trainings translated in Indigenous languages – García’s first language is Mixteco. They are also pushing for community safety observers to be allowed to monitor working conditions in evacuation zones and for clean water and bathrooms, even when the ash is falling.
It’s an example of a type of climate-driven labor organizing that is growing across the US, as workers face new climate hazards, such as exposure to extreme heat and hurricane disaster zones littered with dangerous materials.
In turn, a surprising counter-movement has arisen – one that has the veneer of being worker-led, but is driven by the wine industry itself.
Labor organizers say it’s a familiar tactic – one that’s long been used by powerful industries to curtail movements for worker’s rights.