Farmworkers in the state of Washington have voted to join a union.
In a secret ballot election held on September 12, workers at the Sakuma Brothers Farms in Burlington, Washington voted to join Familas Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ).
“This win is a win for all farmworkers,” said Ramon Torres, president of FUJ. “Now we will be getting ready for a union contract negotiation process.”
Sakuma Brothers Farms is a vertically integrated agribusiness that among other things is a large scale producer of blueberries, blackberries, and strawberries on its farms in Washington.
Sakuma sells its berries to Driscoll’s, a global agribusiness that distributes berries to markets all over the world.
The workers at the farm in Burlington are immigrants from Mexico. Most are Triqui and Mixteco indigenous peoples from the state of Oaxaca in southwestern Mexico.
Three years ago they formed FUJ and began organizing to fight for better pay, better working conditions, and better housing in the dilapidated labor camps where many of the workers live while picking berries.
A wage theft suit initiated by FUJ won an $850,000 settlement in which Sakuma agreed to pay workers for unpaid wages.
FUJ’s organizing also won increased wage rates for workers.
However, Sakuma refused to recognize FUJ as the workers’ union and refused to negotiate a collective bargaining agreement.
To win union recognition, FUJ called for a boycott of berries produced at Sakuma Farms. The main target of the boycott was Driscoll’s, Sakuma’s primary distributor.
Supporters of the boycott established solidarity boycott committees primarily in cities along the West Coast. The committees urged stores such as Costco and Whole Foods to stop selling Driscoll’s berries.
In another act of solidarity, members of the International Longhore Workers Union in July refused to load Driscoll’s berries onto a ship in the Port of Seattle.
In the summer of 2016 when the berry picking season began, things began to heat up in the fields.
On July 20, 200 workers walked off the job in a blueberry field to protest wage rates and the limited number of hours they were allowed to work.
They went back to work the next day without the issues being resolved.
Another walkout took place on August 9 when workers objected to a management decision to lower the blueberry wage rate in a particular field from $0.60 a pound to $0.56 a pound.
At the same time, workers in another blueberry field were being paid $0.77 a pound.
After walking off the job, the blueberry pickers marched to a blackberry field and urged workers there to join the walkout.
Management tried to stop the blueberry workers from talking to the blackberry workers and even threatened to call the police.
After intense discussions between the two sides, management agreed to sit down and talk with representatives from the workers, and the two sides reached an agreement.
The company agreed to raise the wage rate in the blueberry field where the walk out took place to $0.65 per pound if the workers agreed to return to work.
Despite the victory, workers were frustrated by this and other ad hoc agreements with the company. They wanted something in writing that would guarantee fair treatment. In short, they wanted a contract.
Three weeks later, FUJ called for another walkout and urged community supporters to join workers on the picket lines.
When workers in blueberry fields began walking off the job on August 27, they were cheered on by FUJ members and supporters who had gathered on a picket line.
Those who walked out and their supporters marched to other fields and urged more workers to join the strike.
“We don’t walk out of the field because we just feel like it,” said Tomas Ramon, a member of the FUJ coordinating committee. “This is the only way that Sakuma listens to our demands for pay that is fair for our labor. That is why we need a union contract, so we can work and not to be calling for work stoppages in order to get a fair wage.”
After the walkout, Sakuma’s management sat down with leaders of FUJ for more talks. As a result, the two sides agreed to hold a secret-ballot union representation election on September 12 in which farmworkers would vote on whether to join FUJ.
In return, FUJ agreed to end the boycott.
During most of the organizing drive, Sakuma’s management contended that only a small percentage of farmworkers supported FUJ.
But when the ballots were counted, 77 percent voted to join FUJ.
“We want to thank all our supporters that helped made this victory happen,” said Felimon Pineda, vice president of FUJ. “We are looking forward to a new and productive relationship with Sakuma.”