Farmworkers in Washington fight for a contract; urge boycott until they get one

It has been a contentious summer in the Sate of Washington’s Skagit Valley.

Farmworkers at the Sakuma Brothers berry farm have walked of the job three times to protest unfair production quotas that adversely affect their pay and safety and health conditions.

The strikes, which so far have lasted for short periods. are part of ongoing struggle for fair treatment and worker rights that began more than a decade ago.

The Sakuma Brothers farmworkers, mainly immigrants from southern Mexico, organized Familia Unidas por las Justicia (Families United for Justice) and are seeking to be recognized as a union by the company, a large industrial sized berry picking and processing operation.

Members of Familias Unidas are asking consumers to boycott berries picked at Sakuma, most of which are sold under the Driscoll’s brand.

Familias Unidas is also asking consumers to boycott Haagen-Dazs ice cream products which also use berries from Sakuma Brothers.

In a recent development, Familias Justicia reports that Sakuma Brothers is now packaging berries under the Belmont brand.

Familias Unidas over the years has won pay increases and other concessions from Sakuma Brothers, one of the largest berry producers in the State of Washington, but the company has refused to bargain with the workers’ group for an enforceable collective bargaining agreement.

Last year, Sakuma Brothers agreed to pay $850,000 to settle wage theft suits initiated by Familias Unidas.

The suits claimed that Sakuma Brothers failed to pay workers for time worked and denied them breaks.

Sakuma acknowledged that it made payroll mistakes that led to workers being under paid, but maintains that the mistakes were unintentional.

Familias Unidas struggle for a fair contract has attracted support from organized labor in the Northwest.

Members from the International Longshore Workers Union (ILWU) and other unions joined a July 11 march in the Skagit Valley to support Familia Unidas.

The day before the march, members of Familias Unidas met with union leaders from California, Washington, and Mexico to discuss strategies for winning a collective bargaining agreement.

“This is an important campaign that crosses borders to unite the common concerns of workers,” said Rich Austin, president of ILWU’s Pacific Coast Pensioners Association. “It’s not an easy fight, but the important fights are never easy. Solidarity and unity are the best weapons we have to fight injustice and capitalist greed.”

The ILWU in June passed a resolution of support for Familias Unidas at its international convention.

“The ILWU calls upon other labor organizations and legislators and congressional delegations to support a boycott of Sakuma Brothers Farms, Haagen-Dazs, and Driscoll’s Berries until the demands of Familias Unidas Por La Justicia are met, reads the resolution.

Although work has resumed after the most recent strike, the fight for a fair contract is continuing.

Familias Unidas is holding a demonstration on August 9 at the Skagit Historical Museum, which is presenting a program called Back to Our Roots, an historical overview of agriculture in the Skagit Valley.

The exhibit ignores the role that farmworkers have played in the agricultural history of the valley.

In addition, Steve Sakuma, one of the Sakuma Brothers owners is scheduled to speak at the ceremony that kicks off the exhibit.

“This is insult to the Farmworkers to have an event that blatantly leaves out people who have gathered or produced food in Skagit Valley for generations and have contributed much to the history of Skagit Valley,” reads an internet post announcing the demonstration.

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