Farm Labors

Workers at a Skagit farm demand better conditions and wages

Wednesday, November 13, 2013

Along Washington State Route 11, the land is flat but colorful. Bountiful acres of farmland stretch in every direction. Lush fields of raspberries, strawberries, and blackberries begin just yards from the edge of the road. They belong to Sakuma Brothers Farms, a regional grower that sells the berries by the millions of dollars to grocery stores nationwide, and to Häagen-Dazs for its ice cream.

Tucked at the bottom of the hill across from ripening blackberries, there’s a labor camp in a dirt clearing—a grouping of wooden sheds with tin roofs, some larger cabin-size models. The mattresses inside the sheds look ratty and old, and the workers complain that rain leaks through the roofs.

One of the farmworkers from this labor camp is Luis. He’s only 15 years old and he likes video games. Luis was not making minimum wage this summer, despite working eight-hour days on his knees picking strawberries for Sakuma Brothers Farms, he and his family say. “In the strawberry fields, I couldn’t pick fast enough,” Luis explained to me. Because wages are doled out based on the quantity of berries picked, Luis says he was only making around $45 in a day, instead of closer to $80. “I thought I was getting ripped off. I deserve to get paid minimum wage, and that’s it,” he said. “They weren’t paying the kids minimum wage for the whole season.”

Sakuma Brothers Farms did not respond to Luis’s specific allegation, but even if the farm wasn’t paying minimum wage, that would not necessarily be illegal. “Farmworkers have no right to overtime pay, workers on small farms are not entitled to receive minimum wage, and children as young as 12 are legally allowed to work in the fields,” according to the National Farm Workers Ministry. The National Labor Relations Act still doesn’t allow farmworkers to have protections around the right to organize and bargain collectively. Even though Washington State has a robust agricultural sector, with more than 90,000 farmworkers, the state does not protect farmworkers the way that, say, California does—protections that go back to a landmark movement for farmworker rights led by Cesar Chavez in the 1960s. There’s never been a similar movement here. Not yet, anyway.

Farmworkers at Sakuma Brothers Farms have been expressing discontent with this state of affairs and the conditions at Sakuma for a while now. They’ll get a chance to express their concerns about wages and conditions to a panel in Seattle on Nov. 14.

In mid-July, Federico Lopez was working in the fields when he complained to his supervisor about low piece rates and asked for a raise. The supervisor claimed this violated the company’s “no intimidation policy,” according to the workers, and Lopez was fired that day. (Through a spokesperson, Sakuma Brothers Farms would only say that Federico Lopez “was fired for cause.”) This triggered a sudden strike by more than 250 workers, demanding Lopez be reinstated, along with other demands presented in writing, including: “Cease and desist from disrespectful and racist language, such as such as ‘oaxaquita,’ ‘indio,’ ‘estupido,’ and the use of stereotypes around inherent ‘laziness,’ ‘drunkeness,’ or ‘dirtiness’ of Triqui and Mixteco farmworkers.”

Workers also asked the farm to stop hiring white teenagers from Skagit County to do tasks the workers themselves could do, like checking the weights of boxes of berries that workers bring in. “They’ll stand in one spot talking with each other, until a farmworker comes over with a bucket of berries,” anthropologist Seth Holmes, who worked and conducted research on farms in Skagit Valley, says of the teenage checkers, explaining that they have the power to decide whether to round up or down when a worker brings in a bucket that weighs, say, 12.5 pounds. It creates a racial hierarchy of inexperienced white kids bossing around Latinos who are older or have worked on farms all their lives, he says, which is why the farmworkers called for an end to the practice.

Ramon Torres, Luis’s uncle, was in the leadership of the strike that began in July. Torres wrote the list of their demands by hand, in Spanish, on a scrap of notebook paper. “When I have something to say, I say it,” Torres told me in broken English. Luis calls him “loud” and says when he speaks, “people pay attention to him.” Torres’s tall frame and snapback hats make him stick out in photographs of tense-looking negotiations between crowds of farmworkers, their arms crossed, and the owners, the Sakuma brothers, back in July.

Two key demands were soon met: The owners agreed to reinstate Federico Lopez, while a foreman who workers described as verbally abusive, Antonio Lopez, was either dismissed or moved to another farm. Sakuma Brothers’ spokesperson says Antonio Lopez “was fired for cause.”

According to workers, the farm also agreed to bump wages up slightly, and to hire migrant farmworker teenagers, like Luis, into more senior positions. They say the farm even agreed to consult with farmworkers each day to set pay rates based on the physical conditions and the difficulty of labor in a given field of berries. Those were encouraging developments, but there were doubts, even at that time, that the agreements between the farm owners and the workers would be enforced and lasting.

John Segale, a public relations consultant who serves as Sakuma Brothers Farms’ spokesman, says there was no such agreement about setting pay rates: “The idea of negotiating piece rates prior to picking a specific field is not feasible or practical.” Segale also says charges of racism on the farm are “outrageous” and a “ridiculous lie.” According to Segale, “The cause for this labor unrest is not due to our treatment of our workers, many of whom have been with us for over 10 years, but their opposition to the federal guest worker program.” He says, “Labor activists—most from outside our community—came in and convinced some of our employees to go on strike to help bring attention to the activists’ opposition to the guest worker program.”

“This whole thing about outside agitators is just silly,” says Rosalinda Guillen, of the organization Community to Community, who has been helping workers organize. She says Sakuma Brothers workers reached out to her in July after hearing her on the radio. “I grew up in Skagit County. I grew up on a berry farm… Sakuma Farms has always been known as one of the worst berry farms to work in. It’s common knowledge in Skagit County.” Guillen characterizes the federal guest worker program, under which the farm began bringing in unskilled temporary labor on August 8, as “an exploitative, almost slave-like worker program… I equate it to human trafficking. It’s like going to Mexico and renting humans to harvest your crop and then shipping them back.” Guillen says the workers feel “there is a plan to displace the domestic workers with a controllable workforce. It’s easier to have 170 males who don’t live in the community and are going to be gone as soon as you’re done with them, than these other workers who have seven kids and live in the labor camp.” One condition that comes with using guest workers is that wages are set at $12 an hour, and employers have to pay the same wages to domestic workers as they do to the guest workers. Since the guest workers showed up, everyone has been making at least $12 an hour, Segale says. However, once the farm is done with guest workers, they would be under no obligation to keep paying domestic workers that wage.

In early September, Ramon Torres pushed for higher piece rates in the blueberry and blackberry fields after supervisors refused to consult with workers over the wages, he says. According to a press release issued later by the workers, “Farmworkers held two separate workplace work stoppages over wages at Sakuma Brothers Farms, one with 150 blueberry pickers and another with 200 blackberry pickers. Both strikes gained wage increases of $1.00 and $0.75 respectively.”

After the second work stoppage, the press release continues, “Torres was summarily fired for his role in the strikes. Farmworkers contend that Torres was fired for refusing to negotiate proposed minimum productivity requirements that grower Ryan Sakuma sought to implement as a condition of the wage increase. Torres saw this as a productivity ‘speed up’ that not all pickers would be able to meet, putting at risk their ability to work.”

The news of Torres’s termination spread quickly among the berry pickers. The next day, they walked off the job again by the hundreds. “They think if they get rid of him, we won’t strike anymore,” 17-year-old farmworker Sophie Ramirez told me. She marched with her colleagues days after the firing, across a highway overpass and right up to the gate of the farm’s processing plant, where they delivered a petition calling for Torres’s reinstatement and a return to negotiations over a contract.

Sakuma’s management says Torres was fired because of an arrest on August 30 for domestic violence. Segale puts it bluntly: “He was fired for beating up his wife.” According to a Skagit County Sheriff police report, Torres’s wife told a 911 dispatcher that Torres “was trying to hit and push her.” Torres says it was just an argument. He insists he was fired because of his leadership in the strike effort.

And his wife, Deanna Torres, says the same thing. “I called the police on him because I thought they were just going to come talk. In California, they just come to calm you down. They don’t arrest you,” she told me, standing at the labor camp, after driving alongside the marching workers, handing out bottled water from her pickup truck. “The [next] day, I tried to go to bail him out, but they said I couldn’t.”

“It’s because of the strike,” she said. “That’s probably what they fired him for… He’s the one who talks more; the people talk to him. They’re trying to get rid of him so all this will stop.” Other workers claimed that their colleagues had been arrested multiple times for getting into fights, or breaking and entering, but were never penalized by the farm.

The day after the march, farm co-owner Ryan Sakuma went to the labor camp to deliver “last checks” to workers, says Segale, the farm spokesman, but he insists it wasn’t to kick the workers out or evict them. “But obviously that’s problematic if they’re taking up space at a farmworker’s camp and not doing the work,” he adds. The workers interpreted Sakuma’s appearance at the camp as an eviction threat, says Guillen. “They’re under unbelievable stress. They’ve lost wages; they’re wondering what’s going to happen.”

That’s not all. Deanna Torres says “security guys” hired by the farm since the strike began following her around. “One of them… he would pop out. I was kind of scared to go to the bathroom, so I would go before it got dark.” Deanna, Ramon, and their daughter have since moved out of the labor camp and into a Burlington apartment. But the rest of the workers still had to contend with the farm’s hired security personnel hovering around.

Then, on September 25, a Skagit County judge handed down a temporary restraining order barring the security personnel from the labor camps. Superior Court judge John Meyer found that the workers “have a clear legal right to… full freedom of association, self-organization,” and they “have a well-grounded fear of continuing invasion of those rights.” This is because farm management “placed security personnel at labor camps where Plantiffs reside in such a manner as to potentially surveil the statutorily protected concerted activities of the Plaintiffs and in a way that chills the exercise” of those activities, the judge wrote.

John Segale, the farm spokesperson, emphasized over and over to me that Sakuma Brothers Farms is a family-owned business, going back four generations. “We’re a family business, and we don’t give out that information,” he said, when I asked if he could give me an idea of the scale of the farm’s activity. Sakuma Brothers’ net sales last year were $6.4 million, a LexisNexis search reveals. Segale says their workers are better paid than most in the industry. But the striking workers can be replaced with other (possibly mechanical) pickers, he explained. And he was resolute: “There is nothing to negotiate. There is no contract or agreement.”

I asked Ramon Torres if the farm owners can really afford to pay more. He pointed at the seemingly endless fields of berries around us and shot back, “They make like $6 million per year. What do you think?”

This story originally appeared in modified form in The Stranger. Ansel Herz is an apprentice news writer for The Stranger.

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