U.S.: Sakuma-FUJ negotiations hit stumbling blocks

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U.S.: Sakuma-FUJ negotiations hit stumbling blocks

Familias Unidas por la Justicia (FUJ) has cried foul claiming unfair wages at Washington State-based Sakuma Brothers' Farms, while the grower alleges participants in its voluntary listening committee have been "ridiculed and intimidated".

The union and the berry company were on track to resolution after the announcement of a Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) in early July, which sought to establish a secret ballot election process to see if Sakuma workers wanted the FUJ's representation.

"To start off, the vote has not happened," Sakuma CEO Danny Weeden told www.freshfruitportal.com.

"In fact, it has been a very slow process for getting an agreement on finalizing the MoU and moving towards setting a date for a vote.

"The reasons for their delays are unclear to me. To be clear, we have been timely and earnest in all our communications."

The Sakuma-FUJ dispute has been at the center of an attempted boycott of multinational berry company Driscoll's, which sources Sakuma berries.

Over the last few weeks, the FUJ has made several announcements about walk-outs from the Sakuma operation, while Weeden emphasizes the company still needs more workers to get all the berries freshly picked.

Last Tuesday, close to 120 FUJ members walked out of the fields protesting the offered wage of US$0.56 per pound, explaining how management had previously paid US$0.60; a level that was still short of the US$0.77 paid for the same berry in a nearby field.

The workers went to nearby blackberry orchards where pickers were earning more per pound, and in the release the FUJ alleged corporate director Ryan Sakuma attempted to physically block them from going into the fields.

The FUJ alleged Sakuma threatened to call the police and tried to fire a worker who was a member of the FUJ worker organizing committee.

After a loud objection from the FUJ members, Sakuma asked the workers to meet with him and Weeden at the corporate offices, where after more two hours of negotiations the rate was lifted to US$0.65 per pound of blueberries.

"We don’t walk out of the field because we just feel like it, this is the only way that Sakuma listens to our demands for pay that is fair for our labor," said coordinating member Tomas Ramon.

"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."

In response to the claims, Weeden said he had hoped the FUJ would be "more civil".

"I'm certain you will understand that, having informed our employees of the MoU, there is confusion among the workforce and many have been subject to intimidations and false statements by FUJ," Weeden said.

"In addition to the confusion, I have made myself available to the employees regularly to answer their questions and to discuss the business of the farm and, in general, the industry itself. This was something many employees asked me to do at our end of season meetings last year and they have been comfortable talking directly with me."

But setting up the voluntary listening committee has not been easy, with Weeden claiming FUJ has not encouraged the practice.

"Unfortunately, the participants are being ridiculed and intimidated, which they have even done on FUJ’s Facebook page," he said.

"I strongly disagree with these practices and continue to be despondent at their behavior.

He emphasized the harvest continued and wages had been strong, with workers making an average of US$16 per hour picking blueberries last week.

"We agreed at the meeting with our harvest employees to increase the rate so we can focus on quality to continue picking for fresh grade," he said.

"It was a good discussion and we were able to come to agreement on what we needed to do to keep picking and make fresh grade."

Weeden added there continued to be a shortage of harvest employees.

"We are moving ahead and still hopeful we can get everything picked.  There is still a lot of fruit out there to be harvested," he said.

"This is the struggle we have now, but I am insistent on compassion and fairness for all our employees."

Photo: www.shutterstock.com




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