Northwest farm workers harvest labor victories

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In northwest Washington state, a feisty self-organized union is making labor history by confronting a goliath berry corporation — and winning!

Skagit Valley farm workers, mostly indigenous Triqui and Mixteco people originally from Southern Mexico, formed the independent union, Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), last year. Now they are fighting for a written contract between the union of more than 400 berry pickers and Sakuma Bros. Farms, Inc., a profitable 6.1 million-dollar-a-year business.

In 2013, families who had labored at Sakuma Bros. for years finally had enough! They walked out on strike six times to protest the lack of rest breaks, wage theft, bug-infested mattresses, firings of union leaders, and racist epithets from supervisors. They demanded fair piece rates that would meet minimum wages standards and respect from supervisors. Sakuma owners agreed verbally to many demands, but then broke promises.

Confronting Big Ag. When owners tried to bring in H‑2A workers, Familias successfully organized public pressure to stop the illegal practice of using guest workers during a labor dispute. Sakuma tried to claim there was no union, only workers who had “abandoned their jobs.”

But Familias is a union in the best sense, and has representation on the NorthWest Washington Central Labor Council. When Sakuma hired security thugs to intimidate families in their housing area, Familias got the courts to ban them. And when Sakuma accounting tricks stole wages, Familias went to court again and won an $850,000 settlement.

This year, the company tried to quash the union by refusing to rehire everyone who went on strike last year, and by arranging worker housing to keep out families. But courts ruled for the union again. Sakuma Bros. even tried to woo the public by giving away 300,000 pounds of U-pick strawberries.

The berry giant can afford to do this and pay for anti-union consultants because they are really “Big Ag” posing as a family farm. With annual sales over $6 million, the business includes a retail outlet, a processing plant, thousands of acres in Washington and California, and a chain of nurseries. They supply berries to Driscoll Foods and Häagen-Dazs ice cream, and run an online business.

Farm workers are exempt from regulation under the National Labor Relations Act. But in Washington state their right to organize without retaliation is protected under the Little Norris-LaGuardia Act (RCW 49.32.020). Farm worker union contracts are rare and Familias Unidas is the only such group currently in an organizing campaign. Winning a written contract at Sakuma Bros. would inspire other farm workers to organize and fight too.

Currently, management continues to use every anti-union trick in the book, including personal attacks, redbaiting, and captive audience anti-union meetings. One union leader was recently fired for violating a bogus employee handbook that no one had ever seen.

The union bravely confronts these fear tactics with every tool available — courts, strikes, marches, boycotts — to defend their jobs and families. At a recent Labor Day picnic, Familias President Ramón Torres said, “We are fighting for a contract because it’s the only way to protect ourselves. Families need a $15 minimum wage so our youth can enjoy being kids and be ready to study in school instead of doing field work to help pay living expenses.”

In multiple ways, this mostly immigrant workforce is providing a model for organized labor. The union operates in full democracy with language interpreters and full membership meetings to discuss results after every negotiating session. As a member said in court, “this union is a form of workers self-defense.”

Public support a lifeline. Several organizations rapidly recognized the importance of this struggle for the immigrant rights and union movements. Community to Community Development, a farm worker justice organization, provides material aid and administrative know-how.

Organized Workers for Labor Solidarity (OWLS), a cross-union group of labor activists, mobilized to get support and money from several unions. One OWLS member played a crucial role in shepherding a supportive resolution through the Washington State Labor Council. Speaking tours on the West Coast by union leader Ramón Torres brought the San Francisco Labor Council on board too.

Students and community groups provide another lifeline. Solidarity committees formed at colleges in Bellingham and Olympia are picketing stores to publicize a boycott of Sakuma berries. The Freedom Socialist Party and Radical Women provided material support early in the struggle and publicized the fight in the Puget Sound area, hosting public forums that featured Sakuma farm-worker speakers. Immigration activists from Stop the Checkpoints contributed financially, joined in marches, and provided photo coverage.

Onward to justice! Familias Unidas has beat the odds with their courage and si se puede spirit, banding together to defend themselves and their families! Their victories demonstrate the power of labor and community united. For info see “Familias Unidas por la Justicia” on Facebook.

Join the Sakuma Boycott ( Call Sakuma Bros. at 360-757-6611 and tell them to sign a fair first contract, and to stop the retaliation!

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