A berry grower in the Pacific Northwest has questioned the legitimacy of a union calling for a boycott of its products, and claims demands for hourly wages instead of piece rates are unreasonable.
The movement against Sakuma Brothers Farms, which has brought its buyer Driscoll’s into the picture as well, revolves around a push for recognition of the union Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) as representative of Sakuma farmworkers.
Sakuma CEO Dan Weeden wouldn’t have a bar of it.
“The local [FUJ] leadership appears to us to be acting out of a personal vendetta against our farm and not primarily for the benefit of employees,” he told www.freshfruitportal.com.
“Our workers return to Sakuma Brothers Farms because we provide some of the best wages in the region. We’ve gone through a program now where in addition to paying a minimum wage of US$10 per hour, there’s a production bonus that can far exceed that amount.
“Our mantra is caring and compliance; that’s what Sakuma Brothers is all about. Our workers are our most valued resource.”
While the FUJ claims to have 436 registered members affiliated with Sakuma Brothers Farms, Weeden said he wasn’t aware of any employees that belonged to the union. However, he clarified the company did not enquire with employees about such matters.
“In May 2014, over 400 copies of a form letter were delivered to Sakuma Brothers Farms (SBF). The letters were signed by former SBF employees from the Modesto California area and not Burlington Washington, including many who have not worked for SBF in years,” he said.
“They were not proof of union membership or support. Instead, the form letters stated that Sakuma should drop out of the H-2A program because they were planning to return to work for Sakuma in 2014.
“Sakuma complied with this request, but the 400 plus workers never showed up.”
Rosalinda Guillen of Community to Community Development, one of the boycott’s key organizers, told www.freshfruitportal.com there was no doubt farmworkers wanted to work but Sakuma’s failure to recognize the union meant boycotts or strikes were the only options available.
“He has no idea that the workforce that’s working in the field are members of the union and that’s fine with us because the workers – through their leadership, through the elected president, the vice president and the board – are demanding negotiations for a union contract,” Guillen said.
“Their PR campaign has been that it’s not a legitimate union, that the workers did not want to go on strike. They’re refusing to see the reality of what’s going on in their own farm.
“The boycott was called in August of 2013, so it’s been slightly over a year-and-a-half, and it’s getting traction really fast in Washington State and in some parts of Oregon.”
The union has previously claimed boycotts against Sakuma were the reason why it had let go of its own branded berries, but Weeden refuted the claim.
“We did some direct marketing in the past but it was very small, just to some local retailers with some of the Sakuma-branded product, but always 95% or more of our products were sold through Driscoll’s.
“Our direct marketing program hasn’t really been that profitable for us so we’ve discontinued it.
“No it wasn’t [related to the boycott]. It was more related to the fact it was a small part of our business and took up a lot of resources to manage, and we just put our focus on other areas.
Guillen discussed two important topics the union wanted to address in negotiations – pay schemes and the company’s stance on H-2A visas.
“This piece rate wage in my opinion forces workers to speed up their productivity level to such a level that it’s actually damaging to their human bodies, so that they can make slightly more than minimum wage,” she said.
“The workers at Sakuma Brothers Farms did their own analysis of over 400 workers and found that there were maybe 10 or 11 who were able to make over US$13 an hour, picking really fast and only for a short period of time when the berries were at their peak and the quantity and quality were high.
“The rest of the workers made well below that; in fact, the majority barely picked minimum wage, not because they’re too slow but because it’s all there is to pick. At a certain point you know there’s only a certain amount of berries that can be picked.”
Guillen said the workers wanted a stable, hourly wage instead of the piece rate system, but Weeden argued against this system.
“We are not opposed to exploring alternative pay arrangements, but we will not make a deal with a union whose interests are not aligned with the workers,” Weeden said.
“A straight hourly pay system does not reward or benefit our highly skilled workers who return year after year because of the high wages that can be earned under our pay arrangements.
“We pay a $10 an hour wage and production bonuses up to $17 an hour. For perspective, that’s a better pay scale than many aerospace workers in nearby Everett. In addition, we provide a modest living expense stipend for workers within a 60-mile radius while working for us.”
While Weeden only recently took the CEO job at the company, he said he had been informed the FUJ was “completely unreasonable” in previous negotiations.
“They were unclear about what they wanted…in my opinion they’re just trying to drum up business so that someone can pay them and they have a reason to be.”
While in mid-2014 Sakuma decided to pull out of plans to bring in guest workers on H-2A visas, the issue is still a sticking point for Guillen and the FUJ members.
“There’s no need to bring guest workers in. I believe that when farmworkers organize and stand up for their rights, demanding better wages and better treatment, then the agriculture industry in the United States looks for a way to bring in a workforce that can be easily controlled, that has no right to organize,” she said.
“That has been a struggle for many generations in this country; you just need to look back and see that the agricultural industry in the United States was founded on slave labor.
“It’s like a tradition, a mentality that continues in the agricultural industry, that labor in the fields has got to be as cheap as you can get it and be as easily controllable as it can be, and the guest worker program provides a way for them to do that.”
However, Weeden emphasized the labor shortage was very much a real issue facing growers in the area.
“This all started with us bringing in some H-2A workers because of the labor shortage in the area, which brought the attention of Sakuma to the FUJ. At that point they started their campaign,” he said.
“Since then, Sakuma has been really focused on doing things right and being transparent and putting together a great program for our workers. We tried H-2A and it just wasn’t the program that worked for us, so we’ve just focused all of our efforts on recruiting workers here domestically.”
“Smear campaigns” and drawing parallels
Weeden said the termination of FUJ president Ramon Torres in 2013 was for cause, after he was arrested for allegedly abusing his wife.
“We just addressed the situation because it was on our property, our facilities, something that we provided, and that was improper conduct. We stepped in to protect the individuals and the camp,” Weeden said.
Guillen played down the incident, claiming it was used by Sakuma for leverage.
“It was a domestic argument between Ramon and his wife, so that much is true. I think that what Sakuma Berry Farms did was use that incident to fire Ramon Torres and to conduct a smear campaign against him using that.
“That whole incident went through process, nothing came of it – in fact there is legal documentation that shows he was cleared but I think Sakuma Brothers Farms grabbed onto that as an excuse to fire Ramon from picking in their fields, and to conduct that smear campaign which they refuse to let go of. It’s totally silly.”
She said this was not the first time a union leader had been smeared by a grower, highlighting there were many parallels in the Sakuma situation to previous and ongoing union struggles.
“It’s a long history of oppression that has happened. Every time that farmworkers organize for better wages and better conditions, there are always personal smear campaigns against their leaders.
“If you look at the struggle in San Quintin in Baja California and the indigenous farmworkers there, all the way up to the northern border of Washington State, the demands are the same.
“The situation in San Quintin has actually added a lot of traction to the Sakuma-Driscoll’s boycott, because BerryMex in San Quintin packs their berries into Driscoll’s boxes. In fact, a lot of the workers in San Quintin are from the same towns in Oaxaca as the members of Familias Unidas por la Justicia.”