The Militant (logo)  

Vol. 77/No. 35      October 7, 2013

Wash. berry pickers fight
for dignity, wages, union
(front page)
BURLINGTON, Wash. — More than 300 farmworkers and supporters marched from town past fields of unpicked berries on the flatlands along the Skagit River to the offices of Sakuma Brothers Farms Sept. 14, the third day of a one-week strike, their most recent action in a fight for higher wages, improved conditions and union recognition. Signs and chants also demanded reinstatement of Ramón Torres, president of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), the berry pickers’ union.

Many passing drivers in cars and trucks honked and waved.

The strikers work in blueberry, strawberry and blackberry fields owned by Sakuma Brothers Inc., which also owns a processing plant and fruit market here, as well as a nursery in California.

Pickers struck twice in July, temporarily winning wage raises and some improvements in living conditions in company-owned housing. Strikers returned to work Sept. 18, Torres told the Militant, without winning his reinstatement.

After negotiations with Sakuma Farms broke down in August, the workers began campaigning for a boycott of Sakuma products, both fresh berries and those used in Haagen-Dazs ice cream. Some store managers have pulled Sakuma produce following informational pickets, according to strike supporters.

In the midst of the dispute, the company brought in “guest workers” from Mexico, the first time they’ve ever done so. Under an expanding government program, these workers are given temporary visas with a precarious status. If they quit or are fired they are subject to deportation. Sakuma Farms is housing them separately from the other workers at the operation.

Some 150 blueberry pickers won a $1 per box increase after a one-hour sit-down strike Sept. 10; 200 blackberry pickers won a 75 cents increase per box the following day after a similar action.

One day later Sakuma management fired Torres. Farmworkers say bosses took the action after Torres spoke out against the company’s moves to impose new productivity requirements.

In response to the firing, some 300 berry pickers, the majority of the field workers, walked off the job demanding Torres’ reinstatement, a contract, better wages, and a guarantee against company reprisals for union activity.

The Sept. 14 march stopped first at the Sakuma market in town where they found the parking lot locked during normal business hours. They then marched to the processing plant, where a delegation of members of Familias Unidas tried to deliver a petition with more than 300 signatures asking Sakuma Farms to negotiate with the workers’ union. But a half-dozen security guards prevented them from reaching the office.

At the rally outside the processing plant, a number of participants gave messages of solidarity, including Cliff LaPlant, chief shop steward of Machinists Local 79, on strike against Belshaw Adamatic in Auburn; Sydney Coe, a member of Teamsters Local 117 in Kent; Elena Perez from United Food and Commercial Workers Local 21 in Seattle; and Lois Danks from Stop the Checkpoints in Port Angeles.

“We get only one meal break in the day,” said Maximilo, who has picked berries at Sakuma Farms the last four years, working seven days a week during the harvest. “Ten hours a day with a day off each week would be good. Our conditions are bad, but we will change them in this struggle.”

“During the strawberry harvest we go to work at 5 or 5:30 a.m. and finish as late as 4 p.m.,” Maura Vasques said. “But then we have to arrange the boxes and take them to the packing plant. And nobody gets paid overtime.”

On Sept. 16 representatives of Sakuma Farms management showed up at Labor Camp Two at 6:30 a.m. and threatened to fire workers and evict them from the company cabins if they did not return to work. “So the workers asked for their damage deposit checks,” said Torres. “The bosses said they didn’t have them. The workers didn’t leave.”

Since then, the company has posted security agents at camp entrances and began patrolling one of the camps at night in violation of an August agreement with the workers, according to Rosalinda Guillen, who works with Familias Unidas.

On Sept. 17 some 60 farmworkers and supporters picketed in front of the company’s processing plant.

“Before, people were afraid to fight and afraid of being kicked out of the camp,” Gustavo Santiago, 18, told the Militant at the picket line. “We are stronger now. Tell everyone don’t buy Sakuma Farm products!”

“I don’t like what the boss is doing and how he treats us,” said Octavia Santiago, 20, who has picked for seven years. “We are here struggling to gain justice and to get better living conditions. We want Sakuma to see us here and know this.”

Sakuma Brothers Farms has not returned calls requesting comment.

Messages and financial contributions can be sent to Familias Unidas por la Justicia at P.O. Box 1206, Burlington, WA 98233.

Mary Martin contributed to this article.
Related articles:
Garment workers fill streets in Bangladesh
Demand double minimum wage, job safety
On the Picket Line
Front page (for this issue) | Home | Text-version home