By Robby Stern
There is a battle being waged in the Skagit Valley. PSARA members have the opportunity to help some very brave farmworkers and their families.
Sakuma Brothers Farms is a multistate operation that provides berries and other products under their own brand name as well as sourcing some other brands. (Hagen Dasz berry ice creams and Driscoll’s berries) Their products are sold in many stores in the Puget Sound region.
Familias Unidas por la Justicia is a farmworkers’ union with over 450 indigenous Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers. It formed after a series of strikes which began on July 11, 2013, when a worker at Sakuma Brother was fired for demanding a higher piece rate. Last year there were six strikes during the berry harvest season. Many of the leadership and membership of Familias Unidas have worked for Sakuma Brothers for over a decade, some families contributing three generations of labor to Sakuma Brothers farm.
In 2013, farmworkers issued a list of 14 grievances/demands. Included were a higher piece rate that would allow workers to earn the minimum wage; stop using electronic scanners which led to under-payment of wages owed to the workers; payment of overtime per state and federal law; an end to practices which violate the Civil Rights Act and state laws against harassment and hostile work environments; and respect for the farmworkers who allege they are routinely called by racist slurs and treated with disrespect.
During negotiations with Familias Unidas in 2013, Sakuma promised there would be no reprisals against workers who went on strike and that a new piece rate would be set collaboratively. However, after the assurances were given, Sakuma sent private security forces to the labor camps. The security forces followed the workers on their public marches until a judge ruled that they were violating Washington State labor law.
Sakuma also refused to pay the piece rate to which they had agreed with Familias Unidas. After Sakuma broke what the workers considered a solemn promise concerning piece rates and ended their negotiations with the workers, Familias Unidas called for a boycott of Sakuma products.
Sakuma prepared for 2014 by hiring high priced lawyers, labor consultants, public relations consultants, and a private security force and began working on a strategy to displace over 440
workers that Familias Unidas por la Justicia has come to represent. In March 2014, the corporation applied for 438 guest workers under the H-2A guest worker program, claiming sufficient local labor was unavailable.
The U.S. Department of Labor found the Sakuma application deficient in multiple regards and Sakuma ultimately withdrew their application. Working members of Familias Unidas delivered letters to Sakuma indicating their wish to work. There simply was no shortage of local labor.
Additionally, this year Sakuma agreed to settle a wage and hour lawsuit with Familias Unidas instead of admitting guilt for systematic wage theft. Workers received $500,000 in wages they were owed.
A Skagit County judge found, this year, that Sakuma was retaliating against organizing workers by telling them they were ineligible to be re-hired for having missed five consecutive days of work – after the workers had gone on strike for six days. The judge ordered Sakuma to inform the workers they were able to apply for work this season.
Also this year, a Skagit County judge found that changes made to Sakuma’s housing policy were discriminatory and ruled that Sakuma could not close the labor camps to the families of farmworkers. Unfortunately, the judge’s ruling did not come until well into the strawberry season denying these workers and their families vital income.
According to the Familias Unidas web site, Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. is a $6.4 million a year earning corporation that has multiple layers of management and is one of several enterprises owned by the Sakuma family that earns upwards of $20 million a year. “The corporation has the ability to control their product from seed to market, making the firm more profitable than its local competitors who sell their berries to Sakuma processing plants. It is no longer a family farm, it is a powerful corporate player in the global economy.”
Sakuma Brothers continues to refuse to come to the table to negotiate a fair contract with Familias Unidas.
As recently as August 11, the labor dispute flared when Sakuma workers walked out to protest the firing of an employee who had been active in workplace organizing. Cornelio Ramirez, who has worked for Sakuma for nine years, was given five warnings for allegedly breaking farm rules and then he was fired. Ramirez says that most of the warnings were false, e.g. he was cited for not washing his hands which he said he did. Ramirez believes, and the union agrees, that he was fired for speaking out on behalf of workers.
The workers want a contract with Sakuma Brothers, and we can help them. We can support the boycott and make our support known to the retailers that carry Sakuma products.
For example, I belong to the Central Coop and they carry Driscoll berries. I ask them to contact Driscoll. The co-op indiacted they had already spoken with Driscoll and were not stocking berries sourced from Sakuma Brothers. There are many stores in the Puget Sound region that carry Sakuma products.
To learn what stores in your area carry Sakuma products you can go to boycottsakumaberries.com. We can help a little justice “rain down like a mighty stream”.