Low-wage workers battle for justice in the fields

Seattle — The migrant farmworker organization Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice) has been fighting for the rights of workers at the corporate Sakuma Brothers Berry Farms in Burlington, Wash., for over 11 weeks. The workers have gone on strike three times in an ongoing struggle against poverty wages, racist treatment and terrible housing conditions.

The nearly 300 workers are Triqui and Mixteco Indigenous workers, originally from the Mexican state of Oaxaca. They are up against Sakuma’s $6.1 million, 1,500-acre operation, one of the state’s largest strawberry, blueberry and blackberry farms. They have received support from around the region, especially from Community to Community Development. Its director, Rosalinda Guillen, is a veteran farmworker organizer.

The spark that ignited the first strike came on July 11, when a worker asked for a raise and was fired on the spot. The piece rate pay the workers were getting was well below the minimum wage. They went out on strike and also held a “people’s movement assembly” at which a mass of grievances against Sakuma came out.

They drew up a list of 14 demands dealing with their issues as migrant workers and as tenants with families at the farm. And they formed the new organization, Familias Unidas, electing their own leadership.

The strike won the rehiring of the fired worker, Federico Lopez, and improvements in some of the housing conditions. Youth pickers received back wages due them, and other wage errors were corrected.

Meanwhile, Sakuma brought in “labor consultants” — hired goons — and other security personnel to intimidate the workers. On Sept. 25, Familias Unidas won a court injunction ordering Sakuma to remove security personnel from workers’ housing and public highways.

Hourly wage at issue

On Aug. 5, Sakuma was due to introduce 160 “guest” workers they had previously contracted to hire from Mexico. Familias Unidas workers were demanding a $14 hourly wage, but the new workers were contracted to work at $12, the “prevailing” Washington State wage mandated in U.S. immigration law. It’s much less in some other states.

The lower wage proved to be the limit, not just for the new workers, but for all the workers, who struck on July 20. But while striking a second time, the workers ran into great resistance and broken promises on the general pay increase. Soon the strikers went back to work while continuing to negotiate over wages.

But workers and solidarity activists saw some gains from this. Federal regulations prevented Sakuma from bringing these workers in during the labor dispute. The application to bring the guest workers in was suspended until both sides settled in late July. “That’s why Sakuma negotiated,” said Guillen. “They had to end the labor dispute. … They negotiated with us, which is a big achievement.” (aljazeera.com, Aug. 19)

But the workers are still receiving poverty-level wages, since Sakuma won’t raise the piece rate for berries. Since August, Familias Unidas has called for a boycott of Sakuma berries to force them to negotiate.

On Sept. 13, 350 workers from Familias Unidas struck again and won pay increases. The previous day Ramon Torres, president of Familias Unidas, had been fired. On Sept. 14, a worker and community march and rally went to the Sakuma Brothers Farms Stand to demand a just contract and an end to retaliation. Speaking at a recent Seattle fundraiser, Torres said, “We can’t always stay hidden. I was fired for leading a strike. I will remain at the front and continue to lead the committee.”

The boycott includes Driscoll’s berries and Haagen Dazs, which buys berries for its ice cream from Sakuma. Three Seattle retail outlets recently agreed to remove Sakuma berries after boycott picket lines were set up. The boycott is taking place in the Burlington area, Bellingham and elsewhere, but it needs to expand to really put pressure on Sakuma. For more information and to support, go to foodjustice.org.