Sakuma workers win their first contract

Years of farmworkers' struggle at one of the largest producers in the Skagit Valley has finally yielded a victory that can serve as a model for other fights, writes Steve Leigh.

Farmworkers march for a fair contract in Washington state (Familias Unidas por la Justicia | Facebook)Farmworkers march for a fair contract in Washington state (Familias Unidas por la Justicia | Facebook)

FIVE YEARS of organizing by farmworkers paid off on June 16 when members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice, or FUJ) overwhelmingly ratified their first contract with the Sakuma Bros. Farms, one of the largest berry growers in Washington's Skagit Valley.

"I'm proud to be a union member and to have participated in the negotiation of a contract," said Celestino Santos, a member of FUJ's negotiations committee. "I learned that it's possible to ensure both good wages and protections from retaliation."

FUJ is rare--a union of farmworkers independent of, but supported by, the larger labor movement. This breakthrough victory--which won a contract for hundreds of workers in the fields about 60 miles north of Seattle, many of them undocumented--is especially significant in an age of repression against immigrants. It's also a step forward in the low-wage workers' Fight for 15 campaign.

The two-year contract, which covers all berry pickers at Sakuma Bros., includes a target average wage of at least $15 per hour, with a minimum wage of $12 per hour. Workers' wages will still be based on how much they pick, but the per-pound rate will be adjusted depending on the average pick rate of workers, according to the FUJ.

The contract bars discrimination on the job, establishes seniority in hiring and layoffs, institutes a grievance procedure, and requires that the company complete fair and objective investigations before issuing discipline.

According to the FUJ, there will be up to eight union representatives in the fields available to assist members with their issues and represent members in disciplinary meetings. The company and the union agreed that there will be no strikes and no lockouts during the course of this contract.

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THIS VICTORY was won over years of struggle in response to poor wages and working conditions and disrespect on the job.

Workers faced regular abuse from foremen and got no rest breaks during workdays that lasted 12 hours or longer. Workers are paid by how much they pick, and the piece rates often yielded less than the state minimum wage of $9.47 an hour. The company also charged deposits for workers' housing.

Sakuma Bros. withheld Social Security contributions from undocumented workers' paychecks, even though they'll never receive benefits. Workers in their 60s could be seen laboring in the fields because there is no pension plan. There, they were exposed to dangerous chemicals.

Sakuma workers' first strike was in 2004, but organizing picked up in the summer of 2013, and since that time, there have been no fewer than eight strikes.

On June 10, 2016, more than 100 workers walked out and won a pay increase from 24 to 28 cents per pound of strawberries picked. Sakuma's distributor Driscoll's charges at least $3 a pound for strawberries in the store. There was another work stoppage in August 2016 around similar issues.

A march of several hundred on July 11, 2016, to Sakuma Brothers headquarters was key to forcing the company to the bargaining table, and ultimately winning a union election in that summer.

Over the years, workers' organizing managed to force concessions from the growers. Workers won their demand that a deposit no longer be required for company housing. They also defeated Sakuma's attempt in 2014 to replace the mostly Indigenous Mexican workforce with people working under the H-2A temporary visa program.

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.

To build solidarity for the strikes in the fields, FUJ launched a boycott of Sakuma berries and its distributor Driscoll's. This boycott ended last summer when Sakuma agreed to negotiate a contract.

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FUJ IS an independent union, but it had the support of the AFL- CIO in Washington state for its boycott and at rallies. And the FUJ's struggle for a union and a contract is providing many lessons for further battles in this often difficult-to-organize industry.

The turnover from year to year in migrant farm work means that workers have only a short period of maximum leverage during a harvest. Many workers have no formal legal rights in the U.S. In many places, there's a language barrier between workers who speak Spanish and those who speak the Indigenous languages of Triqui and Mixteco.

The Driscoll's boycott helped to show the growers that the farmworkers had public support, but the key factor was farmworkers' ability to shut down production during harvest time. These strikes forced the company to finally come to the negotiating table.

"This is a historic victory for all our members that harvest berries," said FUJ President Ramon Torres. "They are happy to be working at Sakuma Farms with a union contract, everybody is ready to get to work, there will soon be union berries in the marketplace."