Farmworkers in Washington on strike, urge boycott

Migrant farmworkers at the Sakuma Brothers Farms in Washington state’s Skagit Valley are on strike for a fair wage and fair treatment and are asking supporters to boycott the farm’s berries and products such as Haagen Dazs strawberry ice cream that use the farm’s berries.

Most of the striking farmworkers are indigenous people who trace their ethnicity back to the Triqui and Mixteco civilizations of southern Mexico.

“Many of us have been coming to Skagit County to pick strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries for Sakuma Brothers Farms for years,” reads a statement by Familias Unidas por la Justicia (Families United for Justice), the workers’ union. “Every year that we have been coming to Sakuma Farms we have tried to ask for better wages, housing, and treatment from the Sakuma family. After years of trying to change the conditions, we felt it was necessary to organize into the union that we are today to make a lasting impact.”

In July the workers joined together to form Familias Unidas and demanded fair pay for the work they do. The workers also objected to the poor housing conditions in the labor camps where they live during the harvest.

The strike began in July when a supervisor fired Federico Lopez, a farmworker who was talking to other workers about joining the union.

The strikers demanded an increase to the piece rate that they were being paid.

The owner agreed to rehire Lopez and negotiate with the workers. The negotiations resulted in an agreement that the workers thought was fair.

The Skagit Valley Herald reports that the two sides agreed to a piece rate based on a test pick conducted by the workers.

The results of the test pick showed that the piece rate should be $0.48 per pound of berries, but the owner was only willing to pay $0.40 per pound.

Since then, the workers have engaged in a number of work stoppages to protest unfair pay and other problems on the job.

One of these problems is wage theft. They point to a recent review of pay stubs by workers showing that their pay was shorted.

The owner admits that some pay checks were short, but attributes the error to a computer glitch.

The union, however, accuses the owners of “systematically” miscalculating their wages.  “These ‘miscalculations’ or ‘glitches’ have been happening for years,” said the Familias Unidas statement.

The workers also say that their living conditions are bad. The shacks where they live during the harvest provide scarcely any protection from the elements.

They are also overcrowded. NBC Latino reports that shacks that are supposed to house six have as many as 14 workers crowded into them forcing some to sleep on the floor.

The strikers also say that they are often the target of racist comments and treatment by their crew bosses.

The strikers recently won a victory in court.

The owners stationed private security guards at the labor camp. The guards, said the owner, were for the workers’ protection.

But a judge ruled that the guards limited the freedom of association rights of workers and ordered them withdrawn.

The owners are now refusing to negotiate with Familias Unidas and are conducting a public relations campaign aimed at discrediting the union.

They recently fired Ramon Torres, who Familia Unidas members elected as their leader, and said that the firing was because Torres had committed an act of domestic violence.

Torres’ wife, who called the police after Torres shoved her during an argument, discounted the domestic violence charge.

After Torres was fired, union members again went on strike and have continued to maintain their strike.

The workers want a contract that states in writing what the Sakuma Farms owners say they are already doing.

“They tell the public that they are paying a fair wage, $12 per hour, and providing us with good working conditions just like is required by the contract they have covering the wages and working conditions of the guest workers,” said the Familias Unidas statement. “If that is true, why won’t they put that in writing in a contract with us?  That is all we are asking; an enforceable contract that guarantees what they say they are already doing.”

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