A union victory in Sakuma’s fields

September 15, 2016

Steve Leigh reports from Washington state on a major win for 500 farmworkers.

THREE YEARS after the strikes that launched their union, 500 workers at Sakuma Bros. farms in the Skagit Valley north of Seattle, are reporting several victories.

On September 12, workers voted overwhelmingly to be represented by the union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice, or FUJ), with more than three-quarters of the 377 Sakuma farmworkers eligible to vote casting their ballots for FUJ.

"This win is a win for all farmworkers, " said FUJ President Ramon Torres. "Now we will be getting ready for a union contract negotiation process."

The union announced it was suspending the boycott of products from Sakuma's distributor, Driscoll's.

Many issues led farmworkers to organize for a union. Workers get no rest breaks during days that last 12 hours or longer, and foremen are abusive.

Piece rates often yield less than the state minimum wage of $9.47 an hour, and the company charged deposits for their housing. The company withholds Social Security contributions for undocumented workers, even though they'll never receive benefits.

Farmworkers march for union recognition in Washington state
Farmworkers march for union recognition in Washington state (Familias Unidas por la Justicia)

Workers labor in grueling conditions well into their 60s because there's no pension plan, and they're exposed to dangerous chemicals.

FUJ demands included a $15-an-hour minimum wage, compensation for sick leave, job security, respect, a clean workplace and better housing.

Sakuma workers went on strike as early as 2004, but since the summer of 2013, there have been no fewer than eight strikes.

More than 100 workers walked out June 10 and won a pay increase from 24 to 28 cents per pound of strawberries picked. That's compared to a store price for Driscoll's strawberries of at least $3 a pound. There was also another work stoppage in August around similar issues.

A march of several hundred on July 11 to Sakuma Bros. headquarters was instrumental in forcing the company to the bargaining table, and ultimately winning a union election.

Even before this breakthrough, organizing had achieved some gains. A deposit is no longer required for company housing. Sakuma's attempt in 2014 to replace the mostly Indigenous Mexican workforce with people working under the H2A temporary visa program was defeated.

Strikes in 2013 won the reinstatement of terminated worker Federico Lopez, the firing of an abusive supervisor, $6,000 in back pay, an agreement against retaliation and a temporary minimum wage of $12 an hour.

THESE VICTORIES should be celebrated and studied, as the odds against the union were tremendous.

Migrant farm work is difficult to organize because of the turnover from year to year. Workers have only a short period of maximum leverage during a harvest.

Many workers have no formal legal rights in the U.S. There's also a language barrier between workers who speak Spanish and those who speak the Indigenous languages of Triqui and Mixteco.

Despite these obstacles, the workers at Sakuma Bros. displayed impressive levels of organization, persistence and courage.

The Driscoll's boycott was an important demonstration of solidarity, but the key factor was workers' ability to shut down production during the harvest period.

These strikes, even those lasting only a day, forced the company to the table.

The election is an important milestone, but the union still needs to negotiate a first contract. Companies often drag this process out in hopes of undermining and destroying the union.

Given the anti-union history of the U.S., one thing to keep an eye on will be any future calls for boycotts. With the old boycott ended and harvest season over, there could be less pressure on the company to live up to its commitment to good-faith negotiations.

Supporters should celebrate, but don't throw away your picket signs just yet. Keep them handy in case we have to leap back into action in support of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.

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