Mushrooms are Pennsylvania’s number one cash crop. The state’s output accounts for 61% of the nation’s total production.
Over the past 100 years, mushroom growing in Chester County, Pennsylvania, has evolved from a few small family farm operations to a 500 million dollar industry.
Kennett Square calls itself the “Mushroom Capital of the World”.
There are an estimated 10,000 mushroom workers in Chester County.
The labor conditions of mushrooms cultivation are strenuous and dangerous. It takes place over long hours (5am-5pm) in the dark, often with toxic chemicals.
Most mushroom workers are Mexican immigrants, with an increasing flux of Guatemalans and Hondurans. Unlawful labor practices and mistreatment of workers permeates the industry.
Kaolin Mushroom Farms in Kennett Square is the largest mushroom farm in Chester County and fifth largest in the nation.
History of Worker Organizing:
On April 1, 1993, workers at Kaolin Mushroom Farms, Inc. in Kennett Square staged an unprecedented work stoppage, resulting in the most significant labor dispute in the industry’s history. More than 140 employees walked off the job that morning because of unsatisfactory wages and mistreatment of workers by supervisors. Only after the Kaolin refused to negotiate, did the stoppage escalate into a full-blow strike.
In July of 1993, workers won a union election. Despite the vote in favor, Kaolin appealed the decision of the Pennsylvania Labor Review Board that would have forced them to recognize and negotiate with the union. During the strike, Kaolin fired pro-union workers, including a worker who later became a CATA Organizer.
The hearing examiner’s decision was overturned in November of 1997, forcing Kaolin to negotiate with the union.
By early spring of 1999, the company had begun negations with union representatives. However, Kaolin did not negotiate in “good faith” and continued to thwart the worker’s drive for better working condition and higher pay. Protests continued in front of the Chester County courthouse because Kaolin habitually did not offer a fair proposal.
After nine years of struggle, on May 11, 2002, the union signed a landmark collective-bargaining contract. The Kaolin workers become the only mushroom employees with such an agreement in Pennsylvania.
In June 2004, Kaolin went to the state Labor Relations Board in an attempt to decertify the union, but employees voted to keep it. Both sides agreed to a new five-year contract in September of that year.
The union’s current contract expires in 2016 and its leaders are already identifying key issues for in a new contract. Once again, Kaolin is attempting to decertify the union. Kaolin has a history of unlawful tactics to stall and derail the union’s efforts to support the rights of workers. Even so, allies in the community – students, faith leaders, union leaders and members, activists, can all help the Union to win a new and better contract!