By Christina Leal, CAGJ activist
Familias Unidas por la Justicia, an AFL CIO-endorsed member union based in Burlington, Washington, formed in the summer of 2013 in response to racial harassment, wage theft, and other labor malpractices faced by farmworkers at the Sakuma Brothers Farms, Inc. The union has since supported eight strikes and has been victorious in taking their labor struggles to Skagit County Superior Court on five different occasions.
For over a decade, the majority of farmworkers have lived in overcrowded, poorly ventilated, non-weatherized shacks on the farm property. In July 2013, 248 out of 278 farmworkers went on strike after Federico Lopez, an employee at the time, was immediately fired upon asking his foreman for a raise. These workers confronted management with a written list of demands including better living accommodations, sick leave, a pay raise to at least the minimum wage, and an end to disrespectful and racist derision by farm supervisors. While the Sakuma management let go of one discriminatory supervisor and initially negotiated a more reasonable wage with the workers, this agreement was later revoked, which led to additional strikes.
The company dealt with these work stoppages by firing all pickers associated with Familias Unidas, citing poor picking quality and inexcusable absences from the strikes. Sakuma also hired private security guards that observed and eavesdropped on workers, following them during working hours, throughout the residential labor camps, on public highways, and-on one occasion into the women’s bathroom. Gains were made when a county judge ordered Sakuma to remove security guards from housing units in September 2013 and to inform union supporters that they could return to work despite striking in May 2013. The farm management also agreed to an $850,000 settlement after more than 400 farmworkers approached the company in a federal class-action lawsuit over stolen wages. This is the largest farm worker settlement in state history.
When pickers returned for the 2014 berry season, they continued to face discrimination, anti-union coercion, and an unfair disciplinary and firing system. Sakuma barred workers from allowing family members and guests to enter the labor cabins that were relied upon for housing and union organizing. The court ruled against these bans, finding them to be in violation of the worker’s rights as tenants.
Despite these victories, Sakuma Bros., Inc. continues to fall short in providing employees with a fair wage, decent living facilities, and paid rest breaks on the job. Therefore, until a union contract is signed between the workers and farm owners, Familias Unidas por la Justicia is calling for a boycott of Sakuma’s berries as well as its largest distributors, Driscolls and Haagen-Dazs. Because farmworkers do not have the labor protections afforded to other workers, they rely on consumer boycotts to pressure farms to sign contracts with their workers.